The Real Issue Behind the Rhee Flap: Why Can't Schools Fire Bad Teachers?

Michelle Rhee, the tough-talking D.C. schools chancellor, is used to taking her lumps from the press, the teachers' unions, and city politicians as she tries to overhaul one of the nation's worst public-school systems. But this week she's been under siege after a controversial quote about teachers molesting students made it into print. Rhee is fighting back, arguing the quote was taken out of context, but the whole episode highlights a bigger problem in districts all over the country: why can't a school system fire teachers who abuse kids or don't bother showing up for work? In D.C., as in many other cities with "progressive" employee discipline procedures, school officials can suspend such teachers but can't terminate them.
The latest uproar began with the publication of a short "update" item in the Feb. 1 issue of Fast Company, in which Rhee seemed to say that the 266 teachers laid off last fall during the system's budget crunch had histories of abusing students, corporal punishment, and chronic absenteeism: "I got rid of teachers who had hit children, who had had sex with children, who had missed 78 days of school. Why wouldn't we take those things into consideration?" Rhee is quoted as saying.
Rhee's critics, including the president of the local teachers' union (who is currently embroiled with Rhee in hard-fought contract talks) and the chairman of the D.C. Council (who is flirting with a mayoral run against Rhee's mentor, Mayor Adrian Fenty), questioned the accuracy of her statement and demanded proof that it was true. "Why was an alleged budget problem used as a basis for dismissing people who, according to her, engaged in abuse and sexual molestation of children?" D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray asked a Washington Post reporter. When Rhee failed to respond immediately to the outcry (the story broke over the weekend), Gray—who has butted heads with the independent and outspoken Rhee—announced Monday that he was calling for an inquiry into claims he called both "alarming and deeply troubling."

In an e-mail exchange with NEWSWEEK on Tuesday, Rhee said that much of the misunderstanding was due to the fact that the "four-line update" failed to "give all of the context of our discussion." She says there was more to the conversation that didn't make it into the 100-word story.

She added that she was surprised by the City Council's outrage, because, she said, she tried to testify about abusive teachers last fall and was cut off. "I told the [Fast Company] guy what I told everyone here (including at the City Council hearing) which is that we had to lay some folks off who were promising or solid folks, but that there were also some who weren't doing good things for kids.  That was why it was important to allow principals to do the layoffs with consideration toward quality and value added to the school and not straight seniority.  Layoffs are never easy, but if we have to because of budget reasons (as was the case here), we were fortunate to be able to take performance into consideration."  Rhee added that "the part I can't figure out is why no one wanted to cover this when I brought it up three months ago, but now everyone is up in arms. Crazy."

Today, Rhee tried to defuse the situation by issuing a formal statement explaining that the quote was her attempt to describe "the kind of conduct that was appropriate to take into account in implementing the reduction in force," and added that "the examples I gave involved a very small minority of the teachers who were terminated in the budget reductions." 

The layoffs, which occurred soon after school resumed in the fall, created an uproar, in part because Rhee (a longtime critic of teacher tenure) was accused by some teachers of creating the budget crisis in order to circumvent union seniority rules and fire older teachers, a charge she vehemently denied.

The Washington Post editorial page, which has generally stood behind Rhee's aggressive efforts to reform D.C.'s dysfunctional school system, backed up her version of events in a Tuesday editorial. "Members of the D.C. Council had zero interest last fall in hearing from Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee about some of the bad teachers who were terminated as a result of a budgetary reduction in force. She was rudely cut off when she tried to talk about teachers who had been absent too often or had abused students . . . No one cared and no one followed up. Not so this time: Teacher union leaders jumped at the chance to lambaste the chancellor, the media suddenly got interested and council members called upon her to name names." Calls for reaction from Gray and Parker Tuesday went unanswered.

The Post editorial page made the case that it's not too late to create some good out of this mess. Rhee, they said, owes D.C.'s teachers an apology for "words that may have inadvertently hurt," and the union owes the city an apology "for its hand in enabling some of these unfit teachers to stay in the classroom." And if Gray wants to hold an inquiry, they said, maybe he can start with "why hitting a student isn't automatically a firing offense." Who can argue with that?

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