Firing offenses: Why is the quality of teachers so low? Just try getting rid of a bad one.
By Peter Schweizer
From National Review, 08/17/1998.
Mr. Schweizer is a Media Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and co-author of the forthcoming book The Mouse Betrayed: Greed, Corruption, and Children at Risk in Disney’s Secret World (Regnery).
NATIONAL Education Association President Bob Chase, undaunted by the news that more than half of Massachusetts teachers had failed their competency tests, characterizes the problem of bad teachers as a matter of ”a few bad apples.” But when America’s children return to the classroom this fall, many of them will be instructed by teachers who are not only incompetent, but sometimes actively dangerous. And the teachers unions make removing them nearly impossible. In recent years, the unions have gone to bat for felons and for teachers who have had sexual relations with their students, as well as for teachers who demonstrably could not teach. For the unions, apparently no apple is so bad that it need be tossed from the barrel.
The process of getting rid of problem teachers, especially those with tenure, can be so arduous and expensive that many school districts don’t even bother anymore. ”Getting rid of a problem teacher can make the O.J. trial look like a cake walk,” says Mary Jo McGrath, an attorney in Santa Barbara, California, who helps administrators deal with bad teachers. ”For a principal, it can seem a lot easier to hang on to the dead wood. Teachers are more protected than any other class of employees, with all the procedural rights that can drag a civil case out for years.”
”Legally, the union doesn’t need to take every case we make against a teacher,” explains Stephen M. Robinson, a former teacher who is now an attorney representing six school districts in Rhode Island. ”But they do. They’ll defend even the worst offenders.”
Michael Levin, an attorney for several suburban Philadelphia school districts, says: ”I’ve been in this business for 25 years. Nothing surprises me any more. I just had my first cannibalism case.”
Much of the problem stems from the tenure system, which means that after three or four years it is virtually impossible in most states for a teacher to get fired. ”Tenure was originally designed to protect the best teachers from wrongful termination,” says the reform-minded Frank Brogan, Florida’s first Republican education commissioner. (Brogan was recently chosen as Jeb Bush’s running mate in this year’s race for governor and lieutenant governor.) ”Today it protects the worst teachers from rightful termination.” And teachers can expect their unions almost always to back them up no matter what they have done. As Kathleen Winter, co-president of the Scituate Teachers Association in Rhode Island, admitted to the Providence Journal-Bulletin, ”Teachers pay substantial amounts of money to the union. If I’m paying $450 a year [in dues], if I get into a jam, I want something for my money.”
In 1994 a teacher in Florida was in just such a jam. Florida Department of Education investigators were alerted by local officials that a student had been coaxed by a teacher into a sexual relationship, including oral and anal sex. When confronted with the evidence, the teacher resigned. But he insisted on keeping his teacher’s license so that he could work in a classroom somewhere else. ”Naturally, we didn’t think it was a good idea to have this guy near kids,” the investigator who handled the case says. So the FDOE pushed to have his license permanently revoked. But the local NEA affiliate supported the teacher. An administrative-law court finally ruled that he should lose his certification permanently, but it had taken more than two years and tens of thousands of dollars in legal and administrative costs to reach that point.
In 1989, police officers in the same Florida county had caught a female teacher and one of her students naked in a car near a public park. In this case too the FDOE pushed to take away the teacher’s license. But the local NEA affiliate argued that she should be allowed to teach again. The FDOE prevailed, but it took more than three years and close to $100,000.
In 1996 school administrators in San Francisco discovered that a teacher was placing her 6-year-old students in a trash can, closing the lid, and kicking the can. She was finally suspended when a fellow teacher overheard her threatening to cut off a child’s private parts with a pair of scissors. Thanks to heavy resistance from the local affiliate of the NEA, pursuing her dismissal cost the district more than $100,000, and the woman later got a teaching job elsewhere.
Michael Levin, the attorney for the Philadelphia schools, says these cases are typical: ”The teacher fights you and doesn’t just walk away,” he told me. ”The union will back them.” A recent study by the New York State School Boards Association found that the average termination in the Empire State took 319 days and cost $112,000. If the teacher appeals the decision, the cost is likely to top $300,000. In Illinois, the average contested dismissal case takes three years and costs at least $70,000 — more if the teacher appeals.
Given the cost in time and money, few teachers actually get terminated. In the entire state of New York only 219 termination cases were brought in the 1996 – 97 school year.
And the monetary costs go beyond administrative and legal expenses. In many states, contracts negotiated by teachers unions mean that bad teachers continue to get paid during the dismissal process, no matter how gross the offense. James Plosia, an attorney for the Northern Highlands Regional School District in New Jersey (which includes the wealthy towns of Allendale and Upper Saddle River) says, ”It’ll usually take eighteen months or two years before you finally complete the case. So on top of legal bills and administrative costs, you’re paying them more than a year’s worth of salary.” That applies even if they are serving time in jail.
Consider the case of Carolyn White. A fourth-grade teacher at the nationally acclaimed Watchung elementary school in suburban New Jersey, the 48-year-old teacher had logged 27 years in the classroom. She was kind to her students, but she would disappear from the classroom for long periods. Her homework assignments were confusing, and due dates changed at a whim. Her written comments to students were indecipherable. In May 1996, as her students were heading back to their classroom after gym, a 5-year-old girl asked to stop in the lavatory. The child emerged holding a lipstick case that she had picked up. She handed her find to a teacher’s aide, who opened it and discovered five vials, two of them filled with cocaine.
Meanwhile, back in the classroom, Miss White had begun a frantic search. ”I lost something,” she told her students in a panic. She ordered two boys to rifle through their classmates’ backpacks. When her lipstick case didn’t turn up, she began frisking the bewildered children. Eventually she was arrested and carted off to jail for drug possession. The district superintendent suspended her almost immediately. But she continued to receive her $56,000 salary throughout the months-long criminal hearings. It was part of her teachers-union contract.
In Brooklyn, a special-education teacher was convicted and jailed for selling $7,000 worth of cocaine. The New York City Board of Education moved immediately to terminate him, but the union supported him. After a three-year fight and $185,000 in legal expenses the board managed to suspend the teacher for two years.
Often, as a way to save time and money, an administrator will cut a deal with the union in which he agrees to give a bad teacher a satisfactory rating in return for union help in transferring him to another district. The problem teacher gets quietly passed along to someone else. Administrators call it ”the dance of the lemons” or ”passing the trash.” Howard Fuller, the superintendent of Milwaukee public schools from 1991 to 1995, explains, ”Administrators found they needed to trade bad teachers because it’s easier than getting rid of them. We had one teacher who put a student’s head down the toilet. He simply got moved to another school.”
Robert C. Devaney is a case in point. In November 1981, Devaney abruptly resigned as a special-education teacher at North Providence High School in Rhode Island after a student complained that he had made sexual overtures. But Devaney got good references and began teaching in Charlestown, New Hampshire. He was let go from Charlestown in March 1986, again for sexual misconduct. But he got another favorable recommendation and moved to Connecticut. By March 1987 he had resigned from Killingly Junior High School after a complaint that he had asked to photograph a student in exchange for cash.
By 1989, he was back in Rhode Island, as a substitute teacher at Mount Pleasant High School in Providence. Trouble erupted five years later. Finally in May of 1996 Devaney was in jail, sentenced to serve twenty years for sexually assaulting a special-education student and making sexually explicit videotapes and photographs of two other students.
Never once did Devaney’s references mention any of his misconduct. In each case administrators found it easier to ”pass the trash” than fight the local union for his termination. At the sentencing hearing, Superior Court Judge Maureen McKenna Goldberg said, ”The employment background of this defendant who was shuffled from one school department to another, from one bureaucrat to the next, is a crime in itself.”
Administrators’ great fear is getting on the wrong side of the unions. Stephen Robinson explains: ”I have to make sure I cross all my t’s and dot all my i’s with the teachers union when handling a case, because they’re going to come after me. The union takes a very aggressive stance when it knows a teacher is in the cross-hairs. There will be a very aggressive union rep at pre-hearings, at post-evaluation meetings. The rep walks into the administrator’s office and questions the administrator’s right to do A, B, or C. It takes a very strong-willed administrator to fight through that.”
In the fall semester of 1987, four girls at Coventry Junior High School in Rhode Island complained about a science teacher who was continually touching them. Superintendent Raymond Spear wrote the teacher a letter advising him to refrain from such activity. Later in the year, twelve girls complained about him, and four of the complaints involved potentially criminal behavior. ”We felt we had enough evidence to go before the grand jury,” Police Chief Bruce Germani told the Providence Journal-Bulletin.
The police turned the file over to the Coventry School Committee, which promptly fired the teacher. But with the help of his union, the Coventry Teachers Alliance, he got a restraining order in Kent County Superior Court to prevent his termination on the grounds that he had not been given a pre-dismissal hearing. The union’s attorney also convinced the court that the teacher had a right to face his accusers at a hearing. All the girls said they were too frightened to testify, and the teacher had to be reinstated by the school committee. For good measure, the Coventry Teachers Alliance sued the school committee in January of 1989 contending that it had unfairly targeted the teacher. (The suit was eventually dropped.)
Getting rid of teachers who have committed crimes can be expensive, but it happens. What is nearly impossible is getting rid of a teacher who is simply incompetent. School-district officials in St. Louis had to work for three years to get rid of an algebra teacher who passed out A’s to students who would bring her Big Gulps and Snickers bars. In suburban Chicago, a school district had to fight the union the entire way, spending $70,000 in the process, in order to dismiss a math teacher who couldn’t answer basic algebra questions. But these cases are the exception, James Plosia says: ”Even though it is possible to remove an incompetent teacher, the process that you have to follow means you win the battle, but lose the war.”
Not even failing to show up for class will cost a tenured teacher his job. In 1997 Wallace Bowers, an English teacher in Collinsville, Illinois, was fired from North Junior High School when he failed to come to school for six weeks. When he finally returned, he claimed that he had been upset because someone had changed grades from F to D without his consent. But a handwriting expert told an arbitrator that Bowers had changed the grades himself.
Bowers said he wanted to keep his job, but superintendent Thomas Fegley stood firm: ”We don’t necessarily concur that somebody can quit coming to work for six weeks and get his job back.” So Bowers challenged the district, with the backing of the powerful Illinois Education Association, an affiliate of the NEA. In the end Judge Henry X. Dietch found in Bowers’s favor, not because of the merits of the case but because of the strange protections offered teachers under Illinois law. If a teacher’s conduct, whatever it might be, is ”remediable,” a school board must offer a notice to remedy before firing the teacher. Bowers went back into the classroom and received full back pay.
Some states have adopted new policies to make it easier to dismiss incompetent teachers. In 1997, Frank Brogan, whose qualifications as Florida education commissioner include a stint as a fifth-grade public-school teacher, championed a law that compresses the process for termination from two years to 90 days and institutes a 97-day probationary period for new teachers. During the 1997 – 98 school year, 303 teachers either were let go or resigned during the new probationary period. But termination unfortunately does not guarantee that a teacher is out of the classroom. ”We have actually gone through the process and revoked the teaching certificates of some individuals only to have them show up as a paraprofessional –a teacher’s assistant — in the same classroom the next day,” Brogan complains. ”They get virtually the same pay and benefits.”
Now, even some public-school teachers are turning against the absurd system. Joe Nathan spent 14 years as a public-school teacher in Minnesota and served on the board of the Minnesota Parent – Teachers Association. His wife still teaches in a public school. Today, as head of the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota’s Hubert Humphrey Institute, he has blunt words about the current system. ”The tenure system is really adult welfare,” he told me. ”It cheats kids of the most effective faculty, and keeps some of the worst teachers in place. It’s a system that puts the needs of adults first.”
That is certainly the case when it comes to hiring and firing on the basis of seniority, which prevails in almost every state. The result is often that ineffective teachers keep their jobs while hard-charging younger teachers are shown the door. On Thursday, May 28, Sarah Gustafson was inducted into the Florida Educator Hall of Fame by Commissioner Brogan, an acknowledgment of the Florida Teacher of the Year award she received in 1991. The next day, she was canned by the Brevard County School District. Her school was cutting back because of declining enrollment, and the former Teacher of the Year had less seniority than several colleagues with mediocre job appraisals.
The same thing happened to Cathy Nelson, Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year in 1990. She lost her teaching job at Fridley High School just outside of Minneapolis because others in her department had more years of service.
There have been efforts around the country to change teacher-tenure laws. At least four states — Oklahoma, Massachusetts, Colorado, and New Mexico — have eliminated tenure for new teachers. But the problem is more fundamental than that. Mary Jo McGrath, who is advising California governor Pete Wilson on tenure issues, thinks that even if tenure is taken away, it probably won’t become significantly easier to can bad teachers. ”Even if you change the procedure from tenure to something else, you still have harassment from the unions,” she told me. ”As an administrator you want peace. You don’t want the union nipping at your heals.” Until the unions’ power is broken, the minor fixes will remain just that.
Meanwhile, what about the cannibalism case in Philadelphia? ”The teacher was telling students and fellow teachers that she lured a young girl to a remote house where her father and a next-door neighbor killed her. She told one teacher that she ate part of the girl,” says Michael Levin. No body has been found, and so criminal charges were not filed. The teacher was fired, however — and because she was a substitute the union did not make a fuss. However, the school system, Levin notes, is now in court. ”She’s suing us under the Americans with Disabilities Act on the grounds that she suffers from post-traumatic – stress syndrome.”
COPYRIGHT 1998 National Review Inc.