COLUMBIA, SC — A proposal to make it easier for school districts to fire bad teachers likely is dead for the year.
But the idea driving the proposal – speeding up the process of firing teachers and resolving sometimes lengthy appeals of dismissals to school boards and courts – is one that Republicans and Democrats alike say they can get behind.
A state Senate K-12 education panel voted Thursday to shelve a proposal, by state Sen. Paul Thurmond, R-Charleston, to make it easier to fire bad teachers. But senators of both parties committed to finding another way to accomplish similar goals.
Critics of making changes say school districts already have enough tools to dismiss poor-performing teachers. School districts conduct formal evaluations, giving teachers a chance to improve. After that, districts can decide not to continue their contracts, said Kathy Maness, executive director of the Palmetto State Teachers Association.
But one Democratic state senator was skeptical that those efforts are enough.
“I’m all about due process,” replied state Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg. “But don’t you think two years is a long time to have to go through that process if you realize it’s not going to work out?”
Thurmond’s proposal would have stripped teachers of their rights to appeal a dismissal – except in discrimination cases – and allowed districts to end a teacher’s employment simply by declining to offer a new contract in April of the school year.
That approach would mimic the private sector, Thurmond said. There, employees know they will not get several interventions and an “arduous” review process before being fired.
“That increases their desire to perform at an optimal level,” Thurmond said. Teachers need to improve constantly, “figure out innovative ways to educate, and ... bring that positive attitude in the classroom.”
But letting teachers go without an appeal may not be the best way to address the problem, said state Sen. John Matthews, D-Orangeburg.
“Sen. Thurmond’s bill is a shortcut,” he said. “But I do recognize there is a problem with teachers not performing.”
Matthews and others on the panel said reviewing the appeals process and possibly shifting the review to a neutral body are options they want to consider.
Cindy Coats, Charleston County School Board chairwoman, told the lawmakers she would welcome that change.
School board members have to commit to extra days in hearings to hear dismissal appeals that sometimes last all day, Coats said. She added board members are not qualified to decide whether teachers should remain in the classroom after a single hearing.
Now, 10 Charleston County teachers are appealing decisions not to renew their contracts last year.
In six of the seven appeals that it has heard, the county school board upheld the decision not to renew the teachers’ contracts. But three of those cases have been appealed to Circuit Court, which dismissed one, said John Emerson, an attorney with the school district.
Due to scheduling problems, Coats said the Charleston school board has not yet been able to hold appeal hearings for three teachers whose contracts were not renewed last year. The teachers still are being paid but not working, Emerson said, meaning, as of January, the district has spent $150,000 paying fired teachers awaiting appeals. Hearings also cost the district about $10,000 each.
Scott Price, an attorney with the S.C. School Boards Association, said his organization is open to looking at the state law that governs the hiring and firing of teachers, which has not been updated in decades.
Meanwhile, another Thurmond proposal – aimed at improving teacher quality – is heading to the full Senate Education Com mittee for consideration after the panel Thursday approved it narrowly, in a 3-2 vote.
The bill would require districts to ignore seniority when deciding what teachers to keep or cut, except when there is a tie.
George Parker, senior fellow with S.C. Students First who taught in Washington, D.C., schools for 30 years, said the proposal would allow districts to hire the best teachers possible, instead of worrying about honoring seniority.
Students First is led by Michelle Rhee, the controversial former Washington, D.C., schools’ chancellor who supports making the teaching professional more competitive by, in part, eliminating preferences for teachers with seniority.
But others say S.C. school districts already do not favor teachers with seniority.
“I’m not sure this is a real issue in South Carolina,” said Price with the School Boards Association. “If we don’t need to pass a law, I’d say let’s don’t pass a law.”
The association provides many school districts with a model policy on how to reduce staff when necessary, he said. In that policy, seniority only is considered in the event of a tie. Qualifications and ability, performance evaluations, attendance records and other criteria are considered in making personnel decisions, he said.
But, Price added, he cannot be sure every school district uses the policy.
State Sen. Wes Hayes, R-York, said he opposed Thurmond’s anti-seniority bill, adding school districts – not legislators – should make policy decisions.
But Hutto, the Orangeburg Democrat, said he supports the proposal, adding he is for “anything that puts effective teachers in the classroom.”
The Associated Press contributed. Reach Self at (803)771-8658