Giving Failure a Pass

SACRAMENTO – The Los Angeles Unified School District, the largest in California, spends $10 million a year to “house,” with full pay and benefits, about 160 teachers deemed unsuitable for the classroom, according to “Failure Gets a Pass,” a recent series in the Los Angeles Times.

“If I had my way, I would fire [all of them], and they would not get another damned penny,” LAUSD superintendent Ramon C. Cortines told the Times. “They’re milking the system.”

At best, the teachers in question are inefficient and at worst suspects of criminal activity, according to the series. So why doesn’t superintendent Cortines fire them? As the Times discovered: “It’s remarkably difficult to fire a tenured public school teacher in California . . . the path can be laborious and labyrinthine, in some cases involving years of investigation, union grievances, administrative appeals, court challenges and re-hearings.” The LAUSD has spent seven years and nearly $2 million trying to fire a single teacher, who continues to draw a salary of $68,000 plus full benefits.

This is not a new problem for the LAUSD or the state. Statewide between 1990 and 1999, only 227 cases reached the final stage of the dismissal process, according to Unsatisfactory Performance: How California’s K-12 Education System Protects Mediocrity and How Teacher Quality Can Be Improved, a PRI study released in 2000. The actual number of tenured teachers fired for poor performance is probably lower, “a virtual proxy for zero,” according to the study. Between 1990 and 1999 in Los Angeles, only one teacher went through the entire dismissal process start to finish.

“We as administrators, knowing how difficult it is, tend to make excuses for the employee, and I think in some cases, accept mediocrity,” superintendent Cortines told the Times. He further charged that state laws protecting such teachers are a “sacred cow,” and that “someone needs to be held accountable.” Apparently it’s not him, and that has some locals concerned.

Marlene Canter, a school board member in the Westchester area, put forth her previous proposal to make it easier to fire unprofessional teachers. With support of only one other colleague, Canter spoke with state Sen. Gloria Romero, (D-Los Angeles), chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee. Sen. Romero said the state law needs only “tweaks,” but administrators see little chance for legislators to act this year.

Could there be a better solution? After all, research confirms that teacher quality is a key component in student success. According to Free to Teach: What America’s Teachers say about Teaching in Public and Private School, a new study from the Friedman Foundation, public school teachers are almost twice as likely (17 percent versus 9 percent) to agree that it’s a waste of time to do their best. Public school teachers, says Greg Forster, author of the study, “are currently working in a school system that doesn’t provide the best environment for teaching. Teachers are victims of the dysfunctional government right alongside their students.”

Private schools tend to give more control of curriculum, content, and school policies, which gives teachers freedom to work in their area of expertise. More choice and flexibility brings motivation and innovation—undeniably lacking in the current government school system. That system, as LAUSD superintendent Ramon Cortines concedes, accepts mediocrity, shifts blame, and wastes “taxpayer money.” This harms students and competent teachers alike, and is part of the reason California ranks 48th in student achievement. This is unacceptable.

The current system gives failure a pass. The time has come to give choice a pass. In California and across the country, parents and students need the power to fire the whole system and choose the schools that best meet their needs. That is currently the practice in Sweden, as shown in PRI’s new documentary, Not as Good as You Think.

Tweaking current law won’t get the job done. If they want true reform, legislators should authorize full parental choice in K-12 education, as a matter of basic civil rights.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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