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To fire a teacher

Editorial

Three bills in the California Legislature address the problem, but they fail to make the process fair and timely for both sides.

April 18, 2012
  • Los Angeles Schools Superintendent John Deasy speaks during a school district board meeting Feb. 14. A long list of legal requirements ties districts' hands when it comes to firing problematic teachers, and the process often drags on for years.
Los Angeles Schools Superintendent John Deasy speaks during a school district… (Los Angeles Times )

For far too long it has been far too difficult for California schools to fire even the worst teachers. But three similar bills, all scheduled to be heard in committee on Wednesday, contain provisions that undermine their generally smart efforts to reform the process.

We're not fans of the current trend of blaming teachers for everything that isn't working in schools, but there is no doubt that some teachers do not deserve to stay in their jobs. A long list of legal requirements ties districts' hands when it comes to firing problematic teachers, and the process often drags on for years. Schools should be able to fire teachers when they have valid reasons for doing so, and teachers should have recourse to a simple, quick and fair process for appealing those decisions.

Instead, school districts can't move to fire teachers for four months of each year — mid-May to mid-September — and are limited in the evidence they can produce to justify their complaints. The process can cost a district hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the composition of the appeals panels, which might take months or even years to hear a case, is tilted to favor the teacher.

There are regular legislative attempts to reform this situation, but they never survive lobbying from teachers unions. This year's efforts have been given an extra push by the arrests of two teachers at Miramonte Elementary School, in the Los Angeles Unified School District, for alleged sexual misconduct with students.

Of the three bills, one by state Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Los Angeles) deals only with teachers accused of serious misconduct, such as sexual or physical abuse of students. Two bills by Republican legislators, one in the Assembly and one in the Senate, would affect all teachers who are targeted for dismissal.

All of the bills would rightly eliminate the ban on summer dismissals, as well as the lengthy waiting periods before schools can notify a teacher of their intention to fire and the restrictions on the use of older evidence. They also would streamline the appeals process by having an administrative law judge hear the case instead of a three-person panel.

But they also would make that judge's findings advisory rather than mandatory, giving the final decision back to the school board, which made the decision to fire the teacher in the first place. There's little point to an appeals procedure with no authority. School administrators and their boards aren't always fair or right in their dealings with employees, and they have a financial incentive to push out more experienced teachers who make more money.

What's more, none of the bills sets a timeline for appeals, one of the most important reforms needed. And Padilla's bill contains a troubling provision that would allow a school district to stop paying teachers accused of serious misconduct at the same time that it moves to dismiss them. This is an obvious response to the outrage over Miramonte, where teachers accused of molestation had to be paid pending the outcome of the dismissal process. Though the anger is understandable, not every accused person is guilty. It's troubling to think that a teacher could be stripped of wages before due process has taken place.

The firing of teachers is a politically and emotionally fraught issue, which is why the state has been deadlocked for years on how to fix the process. These bills contain some ideas worth discussing, but they fail to outline an approach that is reasonable, timely and fair to both sides.

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