Firing Bad Teachers: A Superintendent and a Teacher's Union Official Debate

Can due process for educators coexist with the ability to terminate abusive or unqualified individuals?
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DrJohn E. Deasy, Superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, supports the California lawsuit against the state's tenure, layoff and termination rules. He believes that the current system has a disparate impact on the quality of education offered to poor students and minorities, and is therefore unconstitutional.

Randi Weingarten is the president of the American Federation of Teachers (a separate entity from the California Teacher's Association, which represents Golden State teachers). Her organization opposed the lawsuit. "While teachers led their classrooms, a judge in a Los Angeles courtroom said that for students to win, teachers have to lose," the AFT stated after the plaintiffs won the case, which is being appealed. "Vergara v. California was a blow to public education everywhere, but especially demoralizing to hundreds of thousands of teachers who dedicate their lives to lifting up California's students...Our opponents have spent months—and millions—vilifying California teachers to push a political agenda. We're fighting back—in the media, on the ground, in the legislature and in the courts."

These two shared a stage in Aspen this weekend, where they debated the lawsuit, teacher tenure, accountability, and related issues. The video of the entire panel is here:

Notice both of them believe that it is currently too hard to fire bad teachers in California–and that teachers should have some sort of due process rights. They differ mostly in whether this lawsuit was the right way to fix the problem. Weingarten notes that she has helped to pass laws that reform teacher tenure in several states. She argues that California should pass those same reforms, and that the lawsuit has helped to create a "polarized climate" where such a reform is impossible. 

I understand Weingarten's position. But as a Californian, I found that claim hard to take. 

The California Teacher's Association is perhaps the most powerful lobbying group in my home state. If they wanted to push the reforms that Weingarten favors through the legislature, they could do it this year. They could have done it last year. And they could have done it ten years ago, when I was a local newspaper reporter who knew perfectly well that it was all but impossible to fire bad teachers.

What do I mean when I say all but impossible? If you're from another state, you might be surprised to learn that I'm scarcely exaggerating. This may be the most jaw-dropping case:

A teacher charged with 23 counts of lewd conductin his classroom successfully thwarted attempts by the Los Angeles Unified School District to fire him. In the process, the teacher, who is accused of spoon-feeding his semen to blindfolded children, managed to retain lifetime health-benefits provided by the nation’s second-largest school system. 

Former Miramonte Elementary School teacher Mark Berndt also automatically receives nearly $4,000 a month in pension from the California State Teachers' Retirement System. Investigators were a year away from filing charges against Berndt, 61, when they brought copies of disturbing photos to the school principal on Jan. 3, 2011, according to investigators. Sheriff's investigators had pictures of boys and girls gagged with tape, blindfolded and some were being fed a milky substance from a spoon.

Here's how the LA Times described the problem generally

Building a case for dismissal is so time-consuming, costly and draining for principals and administrators that many say they don't make the effort except in the most egregious cases. The vast majority of firings stem from blatant misconduct, including sexual abuse, other immoral or illegal behavior, insubordination or repeated violation of rules such as showing up on time.

Although districts generally press ahead with only the strongest cases, even these get knocked down more than a third of the time by the specially convened review panels, which have the discretion to restore teachers' jobs even when grounds for dismissal are proved. Jettisoning a teacher solely because he or she can't teach is rare. In 80% of the dismissals that were upheld, classroom performance was not even a factor. When teaching is at issue, years of effort -- and thousands of dollars -- sometimes go into rehabilitating the teacher as students suffer. Over the three years before he was fired, one struggling math teacher in Stockton was observed 13 times by school officials, failed three year-end evaluations, was offered a more desirable assignment and joined a mentoring program as most of his ninth-grade students flunked his courses.

How long can it take to adjudicate some cases?

For seven years, the Los Angeles Unified School District has paid Matthew Kim a teaching salary of up to $68,000 per year, plus benefits.

His job is to do nothing.

In another article in the same series, the Times looked at how LAUSD handled the most serious accusations:

A jury late last year ordered the Los Angeles Unified School District to pay nearly $1.6 million to the families of three girls molested by Ricardo Guevara, who is now serving 15 years in prison for lewd acts with a child. But there was something the jury -- and the public -- was never told: This was the third set of accusations that Guevara had molested students. Twice before, when law enforcement officials had decided they lacked the evidence to win a criminal conviction, L.A. Unified officials had quietly put him back in the classroom.

Guevara's case fits a pattern, a Times investigation shows: Repeatedly, the district failed to follow up on sexual misconduct complaints against employees once police or prosecutors dropped criminal actions. Some ended up at new schools. In at least one instance -- involving Guevara -- the new principal had no idea of his history. In three other cases documented by The Times, the employee went on to be charged with or convicted of molesting another student:

* An elementary school teacher was investigated for allegedly molesting a fourth-grader in 2001. After prosecutors declined to pursue the case, he was transferred to other schools and eventually molested a student in 2004. Convicted of a lewd act, he was sentenced to six years in prison.

* Another elementary school teacher was accused in 2002 of repeatedly forcing a female student to sit on his lap and pose for a camera. Police recommended that the district pursue the issue "administratively." School leaders handled the matter by telling him to stop. The teacher later pleaded no contest to sexual abuse of a child and received 16 years in prison.

* Steve Thomas Rooney, an assistant principal at Markham Middle School in Watts, was arrested last year on suspicion of sexually assaulting a student, sparking public outrage and calls for reform. In 2007, prosecutors had declined to prosecute Rooney for allegedly waving a gun at the stepfather of a student with whom he was suspected of having had a sexual relationship.

That is the status quo in California–and those stories are all from 2009. With that context, it's galling to have a union official declare that a lawsuit decided this year poisoned the political atmosphere too much to fix this terrible system that has existed for years. Even if the timing made sense, would union officials and members allow pique at the plaintiffs in this case to prevent them from lobbying for laws that they know would improve the outcomes for California's children? 

For whatever reason, the California Teacher's Association has not pushed for a fix to this problem. And maybe that isn't a scandal. Teachers unions are there to represent their members. Though they never say it out lout, bad teachers pay dues and have the right to union representation just as much as good teachers. The problem is imagining that teacher's unions are good stewards of student interests. In fact, students and teacher interests are sometimes, but not always, aligned. The very worst dues-paying teachers union members have interests directly at odds with students. They want to stay in the classroom, which is bad for the kids. 

The failure of California's teachers union to address this problem for so many years is a revealed preference: they're perfectly happy with existing policy on teacher tenure, layoffs, and terminations, because it's almost impossible to fire them. I don't know whether the finding in this lawsuit will survive or be struck down on appeal, or if it will help to improve California's schools. But if the California Teacher's Association wanted to make it easier to fire the worst teachers, they could.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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