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Texas Teachers Fight New Rating System

AUSTIN, Texas (CN) — Two teacher associations have sued Texas, challenging its new rules on teacher appraisals, an important step in determining whether teachers will keep their jobs.

The Texas State Teachers Association (TSTA) and Texas Classroom Teachers Association (TCTA) sued Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath in separate lawsuits on April 20, in Travis County Court.

Regulations adopted on April 6 will replace the teacher appraisal system that has been in place since 1997.

The TSTA challenges several elements of the new policy, including its use of "value-added data based on student state assessment results."

"The T-TESS evaluation system is not based on observable, job-related behavior," which violates two sections of the Texas Education Code, the TSTA says in its complaint.

T-TESS, the Texas Teacher Evaluation and Support System, will replace the Professional Development Appraisal System, which has been used since 1997.

"The regulations in question are invalid because they seek to amend the law as made and provided by the Legislature through administrative process," the TSTA says. "It is an unreasonable, unwarranted, and excessive exercise of the power vested in the defendant, going far beyond the degree of regulation necessary to prevent unqualified teachers from teaching or limiting teachers' rates of pay."

The TSTA, affiliated with the National Education Association, has 400 local affiliates in Texas.

Many teachers' groups and professors of education say that tying job retention to standardized test scores discriminates against teachers in low-income and poor-performing schools and schools in minority neighborhoods.

Students' performance on standardized tests in high school, for instance, may have little or nothing to do with their teachers that year, but the result of years of poorly funded schools.

TSTA representative Clay Robison told Courthouse News that new rules violate state law, as test scores are not "observable behavior." The TSTA wants the new rules declared void before they take effect July 1.

The Texas Classroom Teachers Association makes similar but not identical claims in its lawsuit. The TCTA, which represents 50,000 classroom teachers, certified instructors and paraprofessionals, says the Texas Legislature has put limits on Morath's control of public schools, and that he can only recommend — but not dictate — appraisal processes and criteria for teachers.

"A Texas public school district can either use the commissioner's recommended appraisal process and criteria, or an appraisal process and criteria developed at the local level by committees of professional staff, parents, and community members established under Tex. Educ. Code 11.251 and adopted by its board of trustees," the TCTA says in its complaint.

But Morath's rule does mandate the appraisal process and criteria for local districts, the TCTA says.

The rule, 19 TAC 150.1002(f), would force local districts to use the commissioner's definition of "performance of teachers' students" to appraise teachers, regardless of whether the district is using the commissioner's recommended system.

"Teacher appraisals directly affect teacher contracts and can be used for decisions relating to compensation, promotion, and professional development. ... By exceeding his statutory authority, the commissioner is interfering with and impairing the legal rights and privileges of classroom teachers (including TCTA members) under the local options from being appraised under the local definition of this term," the TCTA says

A TCTA representative told Courthouse News that Morath exceeded his authority by trying to impose the new rule.

The Texas Education Agency denied that it is forcing schools to adopt its system. The TEA told Courthouse News in an email: "In designing the Texas Teacher Evaluation and Support System (T-TESS), TEA relied heavily on input from teachers across the state who wanted meaningful feedback to strengthen classroom instruction. No school district is required to utilize T-TESS. More importantly, the use of student test scores is not a required element of either T-TESS or a locally developed appraisal system. The Commissioner's rules clearly note that school districts are free to use other measures of student growth. TEA looks forward to defending this new educator support system which — through the help of teachers — is ultimately designed to improve student outcomes."

Both teacher groups seek declaratory judgment invalidating the rule changes.

T-TESS is scheduled to go into effect on July 1, 2016.

The TSTA is represented by Russell Ramirez, the TCTA by Edward Conners and Lonnie Hollingsworth Jr., all of Austin.

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