Federal Judge Dismisses Challenge to 'Unconscionable' Teacher Evaluation System

A federal judge on Tuesday ruled against seven teachers who had brought a lawsuit challenging Florida’s new state teacher evaluation system. U.S. District Judge Mark Walker expressed deep misgivings about the new policies, but ultimately ruled that the challenged provisions could stand because, regardless of their wisdom or fairness, the question was whether or not the evaluation policies were “rational within the meaning of the law.” Florida Education Association President Andy Ford and NEA President Dennis Van Roekel both expressed their disappointment in the ruling.

Florida’s evaluation system was created as part of Senate Bill 736 (SB736) passed in 2011 and championed by Gov. Rick Scott. The policy requires that at least 40 percent of teachers’ evaluation be based on a value-added model (VAM) –  a model that comprises a bewildering formula that incorporates test data from students they do not teach or from subjects they do not teach. In April 2013,  FEA and NEA, along with seven accomplished teachers and the local education associations in Alachua, Escambia and Hernando counties, filed a lawsuit, Cook v. Stewart, contending that this provision violated the equal protection and due process clauses of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Calling the evaluation system “unconscionable,” NEA President Van Roekel added that Tuesday’s ruling was especially bitter as it was handed down during National Teacher Appreciation Week.

In April 2013, teacher Kim Cook became one of seven plaintiffs in the lawsuit challenging Florida’s evaluation system. Read how this accomplished teacher was given a rating of ‘unsatisfactory’ under the new policy.

“It is deeply disappointing that during a week when we are supposed to be celebrating teachers, the district court determined that it could not halt the unreasonable evaluation of most teachers in Florida based on a measure of student performance that has nothing to do with the actual instruction the teachers provide,” Van Roekel said.

While disappointed in the ruling, FEA President Andy Ford noted that Judge Walker expressed in the opinion significant reservations over the state’s evaluation system

“The federal judge acknowledged the many problems with this evaluation system, but he ruled that they did not meet the standard to be declared unconstitutional,” Ford said.

Acknowledging the “unfairness” of the evaluations, Walker said that a system should measure the individual effectiveness of each teacher, but noted that the “FCAT VAM has been applied to teachers whose students are tested in a subject that teacher does not teach and to teachers who are measured on students they have never taught….To make matters worse, the legislature has mandated that teacher ratings be used to make important employment decisions such as pay, promotion, assignment, and retention.”

Despite the disappointing ruling, Walker’s criticism of the state’s evaluation system nonetheless reinforces Florida teachers’ case to the public and to lawmakers and Ford made it clear that FEA will continue to push for changes.

“This evaluation system is clearly unfair and isn’t a valid measure of the teachers in our public schools,” Ford said. “We will continue to point out this unfairness and we will continue to work to find an evaluation system that is fair, open and provides a sensible way to properly evaluate our public school teachers.”