Teacher dismissals: I thought you'd never leave

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This month, the Mount Vernon, Ohio school district officially said goodbye to teacher John Freshwater, two and half years after telling him he was fired. Mr. Freshwater went to some lengths to delay his case, exploiting nearly every opportunity that Ohio's current rules for teacher dismissal allow.

The district fired Freshwater, an 8th grade science teacher, for promoting creationism and for insubordination. (The district wanted to include Freshwater's use of a piece of lab equipment to burn crosses on students' arms, but the hearing examiner decided that fact was somehow not relevant.) Freshwater's "pre-termination" hearing, now concluded 30 months later, cost the district--whose annual budget is just $32 million dollars--more than $900,000.

With increasing attention to cases like this one, the AFT asked none other than esteemed arbiter Kenneth Feinberg--of 9/11 and Gulf oil spill settlement fame--to make recommendations on how to expedite such cases.

Feinberg's proposal includes a series of deadlines that would have imposed a 90-day limit on a hearing to review Freshwater's case. The written decision emanating from that hearing would have to had occurred no more than 10 days later, effectively reducing Freshwater's 900-day appeal to 100 days.

All well and good, but it's not clear that the lack of such timelines is what jams up the works. Cases still drag on in states where an expedited process is spelled out on the books. For example, a typical case in New York City takes two to three years, despite a 60-day time limit in the New York state code. Extensions are routinely granted as hearings are stretched out by a parade of witnesses or bogged down in minute details.

Also not addressed by Feinberg et al. is the generous interpretation of how due process has been--at least in our eyes--misinterpreted. Teachers are granted not one opportunity, but multiple opportunities to have their day in court. Our State Teacher Policy Yearbook shows that nearly all states allow teachers to pursue multiple appeals after the district issues its final opinion. In fact, should John Freshwater pursue his dismissal even further, as he is legally allowed to do, the final resolution by the Ohio courts is still years away.

As New York Times and Education Week coverage points out, the biggest problem of course with the AFT/Feinberg product is its tactical avoidance of the real elephant on the table: how to expedite the dismissals not of teachers who have been found guilty of misconduct, but of those who simply happen to be lousy teachers.