Can the unions and D.C. school system keep poor teachers out of the classroom?

Friday, February 18, 2011; 8:14 PM

WE GET IT. American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten and Washington Teachers' Union President Nathan Saunders really don't like former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle A. Rhee. That was apparent in their response to our criticism of an arbitrator's ruling reinstating 75 probationary teachers dismissed from the school system two years ago. But their critique of Ms. Rhee - what they called her "my way or the highway" style - doesn't address the core issue: that these teachers needed to be fired. Nor did it answer the question of why a union that purports to have no tolerance for low-performing teachers would fight to return to the classroom teachers so problematic that even the arbitrator acknowledged that their conduct warranted termination.

D.C. school officials are determining the best way to deal with the Feb. 7 ruling by arbitrator Charles Feigenbaum ordering back pay and reinstatement of teachers who, he determined, were denied due process. At issue was the system's failure to give exact reasons why the teachers were not being recommended by their principals for tenure. Ms. Rhee has said the process was in keeping with city law and guidance from the system's legal team. Interestingly, the local union had had some inkling of how the system planned to proceed when hiring letters were sent to the teachers but, according to testimony provided to the arbitrator, didn't object because the letters were sent to people before they were part of the bargaining unit.

Clearly, in hindsight, the specific reasons should have been spelled out because the thought of reemploying this group - which ran the gamut from teachers chronically AWOL to those neglectful, even abusive, of students - is frightening. We also don't think Ms. Weingarten is wrong when she argues the need for teachers to have information about their performance, although we suspect the teacher who had been repeatedly warned about playing DVDs in class and his use of inappropriate language with students must have had some inkling things weren't going well. Ditto the teacher who received a "Needs Improvement" rating for the year and had a habit of calling in sick on Mondays and Fridays.

The critical question is what happens next. School officials seem leery of an appeal because of what they see as a propensity for the public employee relations board to find in favor of labor. Another avenue being explored is bringing back the teachers and then firing them, this time detailing the reasons. Here's another idea: Why don't Mr. Saunders and Ms. Weingarten - who both say they don't countenance poor teachers - try to work out an agreement with school officials to achieve that goal instead of refighting old battles about the long-gone Ms. Rhee?

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