The Denver teachers who challenged a landmark state law that allows school districts to put certain experienced educators on unpaid leave lost their cases Monday.
The Colorado Supreme Court ruled against the educators, who sued Denver Public Schools in 2014 alleging that the state’s largest district violated their rights to due process. Some of the teachers had lost their positions in schools and failed to get re-hired by a principal within a set period of time, which led the district to put them on unpaid leave — a move the teachers argued amounted to getting rid of them without cause or a hearing.
The district argued it was simply following a 2010 state law, known as Senate Bill 191, that changed the rules for teacher evaluations and assignments. The law allows teachers who lose their positions because of circumstances such as student enrollment declines to be put on unpaid leave if they don’t find new positions within 12 months or two hiring cycles.
The high court sided with the district, ruling that because Colorado law “provides for neither ‘tenure’ nor ‘permanent teachers,’” Denver Public Schools did not violate teachers’ rights. Instead of tenure, state law allows teachers to earn “non-probationary status” after three years of effective evaluations. Teachers with that status are entitled to a hearing before being fired.
The 2010 law also eliminated the practice called “forced placement” in which non-probationary teachers who lost their positions were assigned to open positions at other schools.
Denver district officials didn’t like forced placement. Teachers were often placed at schools where a majority of students were living in poverty, which officials said unfairly resulted in the district’s highest-needs students being taught by teachers who didn’t choose to be there.
After Senate Bill 191, the district began giving teachers who lose their positions temporary assignments with the expectation that they would look for permanent “mutual consent” positions, meaning a school’s principal agrees to hire them, within the 12 months or two hiring cycles.
The Colorado Supreme Court issued rulings in two related lawsuits Monday. One was filed by a group of seven Denver teachers, including some who’d been put on unpaid leave after losing their positions due to enrollment declines or program changes at their schools. The other was filed by a single teacher who suffered the same fate but for a different reason.
Attorneys for Denver Public Schools argued that putting teachers on unpaid leave is different than firing them. Under the law, teachers on unpaid leave are put into a “priority hiring pool.” If they find a mutual consent position, they are hired at their previous salary level.
Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg said the district welcomes the high court’s decision upholding the provision of the law that ends forced placement.
“Forced placement was wrong: wrong for students, wrong for teachers, and wrong for schools, and it is good that practice will not come back,” Boasberg said in a statement.
The teachers were represented by attorneys from the the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union. President Kerrie Dallman said teachers are “very disappointed by this pair of unreasonable decisions that strip away rights of experienced educators.”
“It’s baffling that during a time of teacher shortage, when we know teacher pay and working conditions do not stack up to the demands of the profession, that our courts would discard employee due process rights,” Dallman said in a statement.
She said the ruling was especially disappointing given that the backers of Senate Bill 191 “explicitly asserted that they were not repealing the due process rights of experienced teachers.” Dallman said the union would take its fight back to state lawmakers “to fix an education system that continues to operate with serious flaws to the detriment of our schools and students.”
Gubernatorial candidate Mike Johnston, a former educator and state senator who sponsored Senate Bill 191, said in a statement that “we all share the same goal: to do what’s right for Colorado’s kids.”
“With today’s decision,” Johnston said, “we can move forward in that spirit and work together to improve achievement for students across the state.”
Several local education reform advocacy organizations praised the decision.
Luke Ragland, president of conservative Ready Colorado, called it a “thorough and uniform repudiation of the teachers’ union and their radical view” and “a win for students and families.”
Colorado Succeeds, a non-partisan group that represents the state’s business community, called the ruling “a significant victory for Colorado’s students, educators, and education leaders.”
“To meet the diverse needs of students statewide, it is essential that principals have the authority and flexibility to hire who they want,” president Scott Laband said in a statement.
The Colorado Children’s Campaign, an advocacy group known for its work on health and education issues, also characterized the ruling as “a major win for Colorado’s kids.”
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.