Michelle Rhee must open up about references to unfit teachers

Tuesday, January 26, 2010; A14

Members of the D.C. Council had zero interest last fall in hearing from Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee about some of the bad teachers who were terminated as a result of a budgetary reduction in force. She was rudely cut off when she tried to talk about teachers who had been absent too often or had abused students. So, even though their interest is a little late and their motives somewhat suspect, council members are right to want to know more about the troubling circumstances Ms. Rhee recently referred to.

In an interview with Fast Company magazine, Ms. Rhee discussed some of the factors used in determining which teachers should be laid off and which should stay in the classroom. Unlike most districts that employ a "last hired, first fired" rule, D.C. school officials undertook a review that included school needs and teacher contributions. "I got rid of teachers who had hit children, who had had sex with children, who had missed 78 days of schools," she said in the article. "Why wouldn't we take those things into consideration?" Except for the allegation about sexual relations, Ms. Rhee said pretty much the same thing at the stormy Oct. 29 council hearing. But, as we noted at the time, no one cared and no one followed up. Not so this time: Teacher union leaders jumped at the chance to lambaste the chancellor, the media suddenly got interested and council members called upon her to name names.

Clearly, Ms. Rhee should have been more careful with her words to Fast Company. After all, she has repeatedly said that there were effective and promising teachers who got caught up in the budget shortfall, so it is unfortunate her comment about what she calls a minority tends to tar all 266 teachers. Nonetheless, it is clear that there were teachers who lost their jobs who had no business being anywhere near children.

Included in that group, according to information released by the chancellor's office on Monday, were six employees who had served suspensions for corporal punishment and two employees who had been absent without leave on multiple occasions.

The most disturbing case involves the teacher suspected of having sex with a student. Ms. Rhee told us that the teacher was immediately put on administrative leave after the allegation (which he denied). She said a report was made to D.C. police and to the U.S. attorney's office in May 2009. The investigation is ongoing; it's important that its outcome be made public.

Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) announced there would be an "inquiry" into Ms. Rhee's statement, and one thing he might want to look at is why hitting a student isn't automatically a firing offense. The Washington Teachers Union has called on Ms. Rhee to apologize. Certainly she owes an apology to the dedicated teachers her words may have inadvertently hurt, but so does the union for its hand in enabling some of these unfit teachers to stay in the classroom.

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