Why reinstate teachers fired for bad performance?

Thursday, February 10, 2011; 10:26 PM

IF A D.C. ARBITRATOR'S ruling stands, taxpayers will be on the hook for unearned back pay to a former teacher who, in one school year, registered 24 instances of tardiness and 20 days of absences (mostly on Mondays and Fridays) after returning from two months of sick leave. And to a teacher who had to be warned about playing DVD movies during class time, playing gospel songs in class and using inappropriate language with students. And to a teacher who had sketchy or nonexistent lesson plans and whose every marking period had an excessive number of students failing.

This isn't another horror story about teacher tenure, because the 75 teachers fired for cause in 2008 didn't have tenure. They were rookies or transplants from other school systems, on probation, who had been told when they were hired that they would need recommendations from their principals to win tenure. Nonetheless, arbitrator Charles Feigenbaum, acting on a complaint by the Washington Teachers' Union, ordered this week that all 75 be reinstated with back pay. Mr. Feigenbaum said that the teachers had been denied due process because they were not given reasons for their terminations. It's a mind-boggling decision that essentially affords probationary teachers some of the rights that protect tenured teachers.

Even more astonishing is that Mr. Feigenbaum's decision comes despite his acknowledgment that the system had reason to fire these teachers, based on his review of principals' evaluations. In addition to the cases already cited, there was the instance of a teacher sending mass e-mails to the entire school staff rebuking her supervisors, the case of a teacher who was rude and aggressive, and so on. The arbitrator concluded that these criticisms were either performance-related or matters of discipline and, if valid, "would warrant termination." A small consolation is his finding that the schools could make a new determination to again terminate those reinstated, if they modify their process.

School officials, who had objected to the arbitration, told us they are weighing whether to appeal the decision. No doubt they will get a fight from the Washington Teachers' Union, which already is hinting of plans to challenge the subsequent firing of probationary teachers in 2009. This is the local affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers, whose national leadership proclaims that it doesn't want bad teachers in the classroom. Why, we asked Nathan Saunders, newly elected president of the WTU, would anyone go to the mat for teachers who are AWOL from their classes or who are neglectful, even abusive, of students? And who would want their children taught by such teachers? We're still waiting for a good answer.

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