By Chad Frey
TOPEKA — The largest teachers' union in Kansas filed a lawsuit Monday against a new state law that ended due process for public school teachers, arguing legislators violated the state constitution by folding the new policy into a larger education funding measure.
The limiation of due process — often referred to as tenure — was a part of HB 2506 which was an attempt by the state legislature to respond to rulings by the state supreme court.
The lawsuit is a move which rankled one local lawmaker. Marc Rhoades, R-Newton, who is the state representative for District 31 including Newton said the NEA is spending its energy wrestling for control and not in the classroom.
"The KNEA just spent over $120,000 in primary attack mailers. It spent additional money in donations to KNEA-endorsed candidates. As a union, which just endorsed Paul Davis for governor, the KNEA PAC will spend more in the general election. Now the KNEA will be paying attorneys big money to sue the State over teacher tenure," Rhoades wrote in a statement to The Kansan. "HB 2506 gives local school boards autonomy to make their own decisions on teacher tenure. The bill took the State out of the middle and increased local control so parents, teachers and locally-elected school board members have more of a voice. Of course, the KNEA was opposed; control is their bread and butter. Privately, many educators have shared with legislators that they do not believe State-mandated teacher tenure is in the best interest of students, teachers or education, but saying it publicly guarantees a backlash from the KNEA and others, using threats and intimidation. Anyone who still thinks this is all about the kids or education has not yet connected the dots or the dollars."
Rep. Don Schroeder (R-Hesston) told the Kansan via email he did not want to comment on the case without investigating the case at a deeper level.
The legal challenge filed in Shawnee County District Court by the Kansas National Education Association alleges that the Republican-dominated Legislature violated a provision of the state constitution requiring most bills to contain only one subject. The 23,000-member union is asking a judge block only the anti-tenure provision.
The measure approved by legislators in April boosted state aid to poor school districts by $129 million for the new school year to meet a Kansas Supreme Court mandate in an education funding lawsuit filed in 2010 by parents and school districts. But conservative GOP legislators insisted on tying the new funding to other, policy provisions, including the one on tenure.
The KNEA blamed the anti-tenure law on "extremists" in the Legislature and said it was designed to "silence good teachers." David Schauner, the union's general counsel, told reporters after filing the lawsuit that job protections for teachers are critical to ensuring that schools provide a good education.
"They have not only 150 to 200 students a day, but they have two parents for most of those kids as well," Schauner said. "They are under a lot more stressful work environment than the typical, non-teaching workforce. We believe that the stresses of that job entitle those employees, our members, to a quality dismissal process."
The lawsuit names the state and Republican Gov. Sam Brownback as defendants. Both Brownback's office and the office of Attorney General Derek Schmidt, another Republican, said they were reviewing the lawsuit and had no further immediate comment.
The anti-tenure measure took effect July 1. It repealed a law that gave teachers who faced dismissal after three years in the classroom the right to an independent review of their cases.
The KNEA argues in the lawsuit that the former policy protected teachers from arbitrary or unjust firings.
"We believe that Kansas teachers should have a right to advocate for their students without fear of job loss," said union President Mark Farr, a high school science teacher from Nickerson.
But conservative GOP legislators argued that ending guaranteed tenure makes it easier to fire incompetent or abusive teachers. They also said the change left decisions about tenure to locally elected school boards.
The KNEA has said repeatedly that it supported the additional funding for poor school districts, which is designed to end unconstitutional gaps in aid between poor and wealthier districts.
The education funding measure also provides tax credits to corporations bankrolling private-school scholarships for at-risk children and permits professionals with science, math or technology expertise to become teachers without completing college teacher-preparation programs. But the KNEA's lawsuit doesn't seek to block those provisions.
The measure's title began with, "An act concerning education." The Kansas Supreme Court ruled in 1983 that a law should be upheld unless there's no reasonable way to see "any legitimate connection" between different sections.
The court previously upheld a 1992 school funding law that tied a new formula for distributing state aid to the tax increases needed to fund the formula and also to accreditation standards for public schools.
— The Associated Press Contributed tot his report.