Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes ofwebsite accessibilityD.C. teachers fired by Rhee to be reinstated | WJLA
Close Alert

D.C. teachers fired by Rhee to be reinstated

Michelle Rhee: Gone, but still looming large in the D.C. education reform struggle.
Michelle Rhee: Gone, but still looming large in the D.C. education reform struggle.
Facebook Share IconTwitter Share IconEmail Share Icon
Comment bubble

This story has been updated since it was first published.

An arbitrator has ruled that 75 probationary teachers who were let go by former D.C. Public Schools chancellor Michelle Rhee in the summer of 2008 were improperly terminated, the Washington Teachers' Union announced Tuesday. That much we know.

But is the decision a resounding rebuttal of the policies established under Rhee's reign? Not exactly, though it does leave the school district with some visible bits of egg on its face.

The 75 teachers in question should have been the least controversial firings that Rhee presided over during her four-year tenure. These were not the 241 teachers fired for largely performance-based reasons last summer. Nor were they the roughly 250 teachers similarly fired the previous summer, or for that matter, the 229 teachers fired just a few months after that.

Instead, these were 75 probationary teachers, meaning educators who were only in their first or second years of teaching and had yet to be certified or hired as permanent teachers. They were let go by Rhee way back in July of 2008, at the same time as approximately 200 others who were fired as a matter of course for failing to meet a mandatory deadline to obtain their teaching certification. The federal No Child Left Behind law requires that all teachers be certified following the standard two-year probation period.

What made these 75 different from the rest of the group was they had not yet come to the end of their first two years of teaching. In a practice that had been in place since long before Rhee, their provisional contracts were terminated because they received negative performance evaluations after their first year.

Firings of this sort are not typically seen as controversial, though so many had never before been ordered all at once. It is within the school district's rights under its collective bargaining agreement, as the arbitrator noted in his ruling [PDF], to require that a probationary teacher receive a positive recommendation from their supervisor every year in order to stay on.

Where the school system screwed up, arbitrator Charles Feigenbaum concluded, was in not providing the one-page evaluations completed by the relevant principals directly to the teachers when they were fired. What the teachers received instead was a brief letter that merely stated the following:

. . . based on input from your principal and your status as a probationary employee, your position as teacher with District of Columbia Public Schools is terminated effective August 1, 2008.

This decision was made pursuant to D.C. Municipal Regulations, Chapter 5, Section 1307.

This description was not enough, according to Feigenbaum. He writes:

The glaring and fatal flaw in the process that DCPS used is that teachers were never told why they were terminated, other than that it was based on the input from their principals. They were not told what that input was. They had no opportunity to provide their side of the story.

In other words, had the school district merely provided the text of the evaluations to the teachers and allowed them to respond, the firings could very well have stood on the merits. And indeed, excerpts of some of those evaluations included in the arbitrator's ruling indicate many of them were legitimately not performing up to standards. One was constantly late or absent. Another's lesson plans were "always sketchy or non-existent." Others had chronic discipline problems.

So is this ruling a repudiation of Rhee's policies? No. But it does suggest a failure in adhering to process during the early days of her attempts to clean house.

Regardless, Rhee remains such a polarizing figure, decisions like today's likely won't immediately change people's opinions of her, says Erin Dillon, a senior policy analyst at Education Sector.{} "In terms of her legacy in D.C., there's some people, obviously, who really felt like she was a hero of school reform ... and then obviously, you've got a whole bunch of people who felt like she was creating unnecessary chaos within the system," Dillon says.

"People just kind of tend to see it one way or another with her," Dillon added.

WTU president Nathan Saunders says he believes the ruling "clearly says the Washington Teachers' Union has teeth and will bite." That bite, according to the union's estimate, could add up to as much as $7.5 million, figuring an average annual salary of $50,000 per teacher, times two years each, times 75.

If paid in full, that's a sum that constitutes 1 percent of the school district's current $750 million budget. DCPS has 20 days to appeal the arbitration award.

The identities of the teachers affected by the ruling remains a mystery. The school system does not disclose the names of teachers involved in personnel decisions for privacy reasons. WTU spokeswoman Monique LeNoir says the union is reaching out to locate them and asking them to come forward. "It's been two years," she says.

It also remains to be seen how the ruling might be applied to the union's other pending cases. Some but not all of the teachers fired in subsequent rounds of dismissals under Rhee were also probationary.

Schools officials had yet to respond to the ruling by Tuesday evening. Rhee, who now runs the education reform advocacy group StudentsFirst, did not respond to requests for comment.

Comment bubble

Sam Ford contributed to this story.

Loading ...