Awful Teachers Awfully Hard to Fire

Here in California, public schools suffer mightily due to excessively powerful teacher’s unions. Anyone on the right who asserts as much is doubted by ideological antagonists. But there is incontrovertible evidence that the unions fight mightily to keep unqualified instructors in the classroom—and that they usually win. The direct result is that countless thousands of students receive lesser educations than they otherwise might.

The Los Angeles Times documents all this rather thoroughly in a recent investigative piece. It is worth reading in full.

An excerpt:

The district wanted to fire a high school teacher who kept a stash of pornography, marijuana and vials with cocaine residue at school, but a commission balked, suggesting that firing was too harsh. L.A. Unified officials were also unsuccessful in firing a male middle school teacher spotted lying on top of a female colleague in the metal shop, saying the district did not prove that the two were having sex.

The district fared no better in its case against elementary school special education teacher Gloria Hsi, despite allegations that included poor judgment, failing to report child abuse, yelling at and insulting children, planning lessons inadequately and failing to supervise her class.

Not a single charge was upheld. The commission found the school’s evaluators were unqualified because they did not have special education training. Moreover, it said they went to the class at especially difficult periods and didn’t stay long enough.

Four years after the district began trying to fire Hsi, the case is still tied up in court, although she has been removed from the classroom. Her lawyer declined to comment on her behalf. The district’s legal costs so far: $110,000.

Classroom ineffectiveness is hard to prove, administrators and principals said. “One of the toughest things to document, ironically, is [teachers’] ability to teach,” Wallace, the Daniel Webster principal, said. “It’s an amorphous thing.”

District officials thought they had a strong case against fourth-grade teacher Shirley Loftis, including complaints and other evidence they said dated back a decade.

According to their allegations before the commission, Loftis, 74, failed to give directions to students, assigned homework that wasn’t at the appropriate grade level and provided such inadequate supervision that students pulled down their pants or harmed one another by fighting or throwing things. One child allegedly broke a tooth, another was hit in the head after being pushed off a chair, a third struck by a backpack.

The commission, however, sided with Loftis. It acknowledged that she showed signs of burnout and “would often retreat from student relationship problems rather than confront them.”

But it said the district did not try hard enough to help her and suggested administrators find her another job — perhaps training other teachers. “She’s obviously an intelligent lady, and such a program might well succeed.”

When the district took the case to Superior Court, lost and appealed, Loftis retired. The district agreed to pay $195,000 for her attorney’s fees.

What do I propose? Merely that teachers be hired and fired under the same rules that govern the jobs of most Americans. That means principals should have wide latitude to fire teachers at will, that layoffs should cull the least talented rather than the least senior teachers, and that school districts should not be required to spend several years and several hundred thousand dollars to fire awful teachers. One charge against charter school and voucher proponents is that we want to do an end run around unionized teachers. I plead guilty.