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Court: Teacher Firing Over English Fluency Was Improper

The highest court in Massachusetts has sided with a Cambodian refugee teacher in a dispute with her school district over whether she had sufficient fluency in English.

Phanna Kem Robishaw, who fled the deadly Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia in the 1970's, begain teaching in the Lowell, Mass., school district in 1992. She taught first grade at a school where about half the enrollment was Cambodian.

In 2002, Massachusetts voters adopted a ballot inititiative aimed at eliminating bilingual education programs and requiring that schools show that teachers were fluent in English. Robishaw ran into problems when, before the law took effect, a new principal at her school expressed concerns about the teacher's English fluency and later gave her an unsatisfactoriy performance rating. Robishaw was dismissed in 2005, with the superintendent saying she was insufficiently fluent in English.

Robishaw sought review by an arbitrator, who ruled that the school district's reasons for dismissing the teacher were invalid. The arbitrator further held that retaining Robishaw was in students' best interest because of the her life story as a survivor of the Khmer Rouge and as a role model, according to court papers.

The school district took the matter to court, and a trial judge ruled that the arbitrator exceeded his authority. The judge based his ruling in part on listening to the test audiotape of Robishaw and concluding that "i find her ability to speak comprehensible English almost completely non-existent."

But in a May 4 decision in School Committee of Lowell v. Robishaw, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ordered that the arbitrator's ruling be restored. (No direct link is available, but the opinion can be found from the court's opinion page.)

The state high court ruled unanimously that the arbitrator properly based his decision on the fact that the teacher's scores on two tests of English fluency were not valid indicators because Robishaw was on medical leave for post-traumatic stress disorder at the time she took the tests. And the court said the trial judge should not have undertaken his own, indepedent review of the evidence that was before the arbitrator.

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