Suit filed on ballot initiative

The state’s largest teachers’ union filed a complaint on January 23 with the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court asking that the Stand for Children initiative petition be barred from the November ballot on the grounds that it violates the state constitution.

Massachusetts Teachers Association President Paul Toner said that the initiative is a distraction from “serious, collaborative, ongoing education reform efforts” and that it will not improve the quality of education for students.

“We have been working extremely long and hard with parents, business groups, state officials and other education stakeholders to implement a new evaluation system that is designed to improve the quality of instruction in our schools,” said Toner. “This lengthy and complicated ballot initiative throws a monkey wrench into the process. It’s no wonder so many organizations, as well as education leaders in Governor Deval Patrick’s administration, are strongly opposed to it.”

Secretary of Education Paul Reville addressed the ballot question in an e-mail last November. “I fear that the ballot initiative would set up a distracting and divisive battle, engendering an over-simplified public dialogue that would alienate educators and prevent us from achieving a variety of reform goals,” Reville wrote.

The lawsuit, filed by the MTA on behalf of seven plaintiffs, asserts that the ballot proposal violates state constitutional requirements for initiative petitions and that the summary of it is incomplete. The complaint alleges:

  • The measure confuses the voters by including unrelated matters in one petition.
  • The measure affects the powers of the courts.
  • The Attorney General’s summary of the petition is incomplete, failing to inform the voters of ways in which it impairs teacher collective bargaining rights.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are all registered voters. They are three recent Massachusetts Teachers of the Year, the president of the Massachusetts Parent Teacher Association, a Boston public school parent, an expert in teacher education and evaluation and a member of the Scituate School Committee.

According to the complaint filed by the MTA: “The purported purpose of the Petition is to impose a teacher evaluation system that will support ‘merit-based’ personnel actions in the public schools. In operation, however, the Petition is a confusing hodgepodge of eleven separate sections that amend and/or repeal numerous provisions of two comprehensive statutes governing public schools in conceptually unrelated areas.  The diverse subjects that would be presented to the voters range from the introduction of new timelines in teacher-dismissal arbitrations to employee rights in school regionalization to the method of computing years of service required for professional teacher status. 

“Further, the amendment would significantly alter the scope of judicial review of arbitration awards in teacher terminations. …

“Additionally, the summary prepared by the Attorney General is neither ‘fair’ nor ‘concise.’ While four pages long, the summary is nevertheless incomplete and fails to inform the voters of the magnitude of the substantive and procedural changes to existing law that would result from the Petition’s enactment, including that the measure would end the right of school districts and teachers to collectively bargain over the material aspects of numerous personnel actions and other subjects.”

Plaintiff comments on the Stand for Children ballot question.

Michael Flynn, 2008 Massachusetts Teacher of the Year: He teaches second grade in Southampton and lives in Northampton, where he is a member of the school committee: “This ballot question is so complicated and bureaucratic, the summary alone is four pages long. There is no way voters can make an informed decision about it in the few minutes they have to spend in the voting booth.”

Mary Ann Stewart, president of the Massachusetts Parent Teacher Association and a resident of Lexington: “This is a huge distraction from what teachers and parents believe is most needed to help students succeed. We need small class sizes, excellent preschools, support services for at-risk students and high-quality professional development for teachers. Instead, this ballot question gives us more top-down mandates and red tape.”

Richard Hebert, a Scituate resident and a member of the Scituate School Committee: “I believe in local decision-making. I believe in letting towns and their teachers hammer out the guidelines for reducing staff. This one-size-fits-all approach is dangerous and simplistic and infringes on the autonomy of towns and ignores the special circumstances each community faces.”

Floris Wilma Ortiz-Marrero, 2011 Massachusetts Teacher of the Year, lives in Amherst and teaches English language learners at Amherst-Pelham Regional Middle School: “Teachers, administrators, parents, business leaders and state officials just spent many, many months coming up with a bold new evaluation system for school personnel. We’re at the beginning stages of implementing that system now in my district and many others. If this ballot question passes, all that hard work will be thrown out the window. Districts will be forced to implement an untested new system developed by an outside organization – Stand for Children – that most teachers have never even heard of.”

Jon Saphier, president of Research for Better Teaching, Inc., and a resident of Carlisle: “Destroying the credibility of the new and needed evaluation system is not what we need. Making the new system work for students is what we need. The Stand for Children ballot question creates a situation where even small distinctions in evaluation ratings can lead to terminations of competent and experienced teachers. This will cause numerous arbitrations and lawsuits where the termination will be overturned because the fine discriminations by evaluators cannot be defended.”

Jae Goodwin, 2010 Massachusetts Teacher of the Year, teaches and lives in Framingham: “Teachers know what good teaching looks like. We need to have a voice in setting standards and making sure that the evaluation systems in our districts lead to better teaching. This ballot question basically tells teachers to take a back seat in the process and let the administrators make all the important decisions.”

Boston Globe editorial, 1/16/12: Bargain, or face the ballot

Boston Globe, 1/23/12: Teachers union taking ballot question to court: Initiative links job evaluations, layoffs

WWLP TV, Springfield, 1/24/12: MA Teachers Union sues over question: Calls proposal unconstitutional and confusing

Daily Hampshire Gazette, 1/24/12: Two local teachers join lawsuit seeking to block ballot initiative on evaluations

Boston Herald, 1/24/12: Mass. teachers sue to stop ballot question

WGGB TV Springfield, 1/24/12: Teachers sue to stop ballot question

WAMC FM, 1/27/12: Teachers union sues to block ballot question