11th Circuit Finds That Florida’s Teacher Evaluation Model Has a Rational Basis

In Cook v. Bennett, 792 F.3d 1294 (11th Cir. 2015), the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment for Florida school districts and State Board of Education officials. In affirming the district court, the Eleventh Circuit agreed that seven public school teachers and their representative associations failed to present sufficient evidence showing that Florida’s teacher evaluation procedures lacked a rational basis.

In 2011, Florida passed the Student Success Act, establishing new performance evaluation procedures for public school teachers. Fla. Stat. § 1012.34 (2011). The statute resulted in the development of an evaluation formula known as the FCAT value-added model (FCAT VAM), which attempted to measure an individual teacher’s effect on their students’ standardized test scores. In practice, each teacher’s evaluation score could affect the teacher’s future employment and pay raises. The FCAT VAM used a baseline of a student’s previous year’s scores on the English and mathematics sections of the FCAT, compared to the student’s most recent scores, to evaluate his or her teacher’s performance. The model works, as designed for teachers of English and mathematics, in grades after the student can establish a baseline, but the FCAT VAM has also been used to evaluate teachers in other subject areas and earlier grade levels. In practice, teachers of subjects other than mathematics and English would be evaluated on their students’ performance in subjects they did not teach, and teachers of grade levels below the baseline were evaluated on school-wide FCAT VAM scores derived from the FCAT scores of other students.

Seven Florida school teachers and three local teachers’ associations brought suit challenging the constitutionality of the Student Success Act and the State’s implementation of the Act under the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment. The district court granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss the plaintiffs’ facial challenge of the Act because the Florida legislature had a rational basis for the evaluation system. Later, the district court granted summary judgment against the plaintiffs’ as-applied claims holding that the evaluation system was justified by a rational basis. On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit considered: 1) the plaintiffs’ Due Process and Equal Protection claim; 2) issues concerning the plaintiffs’ standing and; 3) mootness after Florida amended the statute.

The court held the plaintiffs’ Due Process and Equal Protection claims fail because the evaluation policies pass a rational basis review. Although the FCAT VAM “may not be the best method,” “may even be a poor one,” and “has led to some unfair results”, the court found that the evaluation procedures advance the purpose of the Student Success Act. Id. at 12-13. The court reasoned that Florida officials could reasonably believe that a teacher can improve student performance across subjects and that the FCAT VAM can measure school-wide performance improvements. Thus, the evaluation system measuring teacher performance by looking at other subjects, or school wide performance, could rationally lead to the improvement of students’ test scores, which was the stated purpose of the Student Success Act. Additionally, the scheme can incentivize teachers to pursue school wide improvements that may positively affect student performance.

Plaintiffs argued that Debra P. v. Turlington, 644 F.2d 397 (5th Cir. 1981), and Armstead v. Starkville Mun. Separate Sch. Dist., 461 F.2d 276 (5th Cir. 1972) required a finding that the evaluation system was not rationally related to the purpose of improving student performance, but the court disagreed. The court reasoned that the standardized graduation test in Turlington and the employment qualification test in Armstead could not further a legitimate state objective. To the contrary, the plaintiffs conceded in oral argument that the FCAT VAM is capable of measuring some impact that teachers can have on their students or the school as a whole.

Finally, the court found the plaintiffs met all the requirements of Article III standing, including a concrete, imminent, and traceable injury. The court further held that changes in Florida law did not render the issue moot because the amendments did not make it absolutely clear that the allegedly wrongful behavior was not reasonably expected to occur.

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