Teacher Horror from Los Angeles and New York Demonstrate Need for Collective Bargaining Reform

This week the Los Angeles Times has been running a frightening series on the ineffective teacher personnel practices in Los Angeles Unified. In California, it is virtually impossible to dismiss a teacher for any reason. Read it and weep.

This story sums it up:

The eighth-grade boy held out his wrists for teacher Carlos Polanco to see. He had just explained to Polanco and his history classmates at Virgil Middle School in Koreatown why he had been absent: He had been in the hospital after an attempt at suicide. Polanco looked at the cuts and said they “were weak,” according to witness accounts in documents filed with the state. “Carve deeper next time,” he was said to have told the boy. “Look,” Polanco allegedly said, “you can’t even kill yourself.” The boy’s classmates joined in, with one advising how to cut a main artery, according to the witnesses. “See,” Polanco was quoted as saying, “even he knows how to commit suicide better than you.” The Los Angeles school board, citing Polanco’s poor judgment, voted to fire him. But Polanco, who contended that he had been misunderstood, kept his job. A little-known review commission overruled the board, saying that although the teacher had made the statements, he had meant no harm.

What does a teacher have to do to get dismissed? Even very serious incidents do not result in teacher dismissal.

Highlights from the Los Angeles Times series include include:

  • Only 159 teachers were dismissed in California in 15 years–even though the California Teachers Association has more than 300,000 members. In fact, only 31 teachers dismissed in last five years.
  • About 160 instructors in Los Angeles and others get salaries for doing nothing while their job fitness is reviewed. They collect roughly $10 million a year, even as layoffs are considered because of a budget gap.
  • Jettisoning a teacher solely because he or she can’t teach is rare. In 80 percent of the dismissals that were upheld, classroom performance was not even a factor.

New York City faces a similar situation. As the New York Times reports:

Anticipating significant budget cuts to New York City schools in the coming year, Chancellor Joel I. Klein ordered principals on Wednesday to stop hiring teachers from outside the system, a move that will force them to look internally at a pool that, according to an independent report, includes many subpar teachers. . . .

Mr. Klein’s order marked a turnaround for the department, which had resisted efforts to find permanent teaching jobs for the 1,100 teachers in the pool, many of whom came from poor-performing schools and were six times as likely to have received an unsatisfactory rating than teachers not in the pool, according to the independent report. The Education Department had been content to pay their salaries while they worked as substitutes.

Mr. Klein said the dreary economy had forced him to order the hiring restrictions, which he said were needed to avoid layoffs. The report, released last year by the New Teacher Project, which recruits and trains educators for school systems, estimated that the pool cost the city $81 million over two years.

The hiring restrictions seem to throw a wrench into what has been a hallmark of Mr. Klein’s education reform efforts: giving principals the freedom to hire educators of their choice as they try to create high-performing schools.

These kind of legal restrictions that prevent principals from having any control over there employees will prevent any real reform of the public school system. Even in districts like New York City with agressive public school choice and a student-based budgeting system, where the money follows the child and principals control budgets and are held accountable; if these same principals have to accept forced-placed teachers with sub-par evaluations, how can they be held accountable for student outcomes?

These kind of restrictions mean that the continued expansion of charter schools and other types of school choice can not come fast enough for students and teachers. Charter schools are free from these types of personnel restrictions, and in places like New York and Los Angeles they have waiting lists for both the students and the teachers who want to work in these schools.