D.C. teachers fired by Rhee to be reinstated

Michelle Rhee: Gone, but still looming large in the D.C. education reform struggle. (Photo: Jay Westcott)

This story has been updated since it was first published.

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Is the reinstatement of 75 teachers fired by Michelle Rhee embarrassing for her legacy?

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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.

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Neither former DCPS chancellor Michelle Rhee nor current chancellor Kaya Henderson had responded to our requests for comment on today's ruling by press time.

We also don't know the names of any of the 75 teachers affected by the decision.

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