Friday, April 11, 2008

Dance of the Lemons

An article in Reason Magazine chronicles the difficulty New York State (and other states, I’d imagine)is having firing teachers who haven’t performed well—it’s hard to believe the extent of red tape:

Joel Klein led the Justice Department's attack on Microsoft for its alleged efforts to monopolize the software market. But Microsoft is a hotbed of competition compared to the organization Klein runs now. Klein is chancellor of New York City's public school system, a monopoly so heavily regulated that sometimes it's unable to fire even dangerous teachers.

The series of steps a principal must take to dismiss an instructor is Byzantine. "It's almost impossible," Klein complains.

The rules were well-intended. The union was worried that principals would play favorites, hiring friends and family members while firing good teachers. If public education were subject to the competition of the free market, those bureaucratic rules would be unnecessary, because parents would hold a bad principal accountable by sending their kids to a different school the next year. But government schools never go out of business, and parents' ability to change schools is sharply curtailed. So the education monopoly adopts paralyzing rules instead.

The regulations are so onerous that principals rarely even try to fire a teacher. Most just put the bad ones in pretend-work jobs, or sucker another school into taking them. (They call that the "dance of the lemons.") The city payrolls include hundreds of teachers who have been deemed incompetent, violent, or guilty of sexual misconduct. Since the schools are afraid to let them teach, they put them in so-called "rubber rooms" instead. There they read magazines, play cards, and chat, at a cost to New York taxpayers of $20 million a year.

Once, Klein reports, the school system discovered that a teacher was sending sexual e-mails to a 16-year-old student. "This was the most unbelievable case to me," he says, "because the e-mail was there, he admitted to it. It was so thoroughly offensive." Even with the teacher's confession, it took six years of expensive litigation before the school could fire him. He didn't teach during those six years, but he still got paid—more than $350,000 total.

If I were a teacher, I’d be bent out of shape that teachers either with serious infractions or ineffective plans could continue getting paid for not doing the job they were hired to. And while teaching and how to measure one’s efficacy and efficiency is terrifically hard and controversial, with situations where a teacher has violated trust or been negligent of responsibilities we should not want that kind of person to spend another second around children.

It’s hard to believe that taxpayers will sit idly by as criminals or opportunists suck at the marrow of education funds, but it’s hard when your vote doesn’t reach the people who make these policies, and it’s even harder when your leverage is a tax that you are required to pay. Giving more power to parents, and allowing them to choose how their education dollars are spent and what practices they want to support in their child’s school will make sure that whatever protection is in place for teachers does not infringe on a child’s right to be educated in a safe environment.

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