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John Thompson: As Due Process for Teachers is Removed, Secret Files and Blacklists Return

Guest post by John Thompson.

The essence of due process is simple. When a teacher or any other employee is sanctioned, there will be some paperwork. Due process means that a signature is attached certifying that the statements of record are not false. Tenure provides a procedure for the teacher or his representative to answer those charges. 

In 2008, Michelle Rhee would not even abide by the procedure for terminating 75 teachers without tenure, even though a principal's recommendation was all that was necessary. The Washington D.C. (DCPS) dismissals were then overturned by an arbitrator because the district did not follow the simple task of notifying teachers of their shortcomings.

In 2009, Rhee terminated 266 teachers and support staff after hiring some 900 new teachers. It was claimed that the terminations were a reduction in force (RIF) due to a budgetary shortfall that was unforeseen when Rhee went on a hiring spree. It was subsequently revealed that Rhee knew that the DCPS had no budgetary shortfall, so apparently it was a pretext for the mass firings. A music teacher sued claiming that "his firing was concocted by using a misapplied or non-existent job title to enable his poor evaluation and subsequent firing." The case is now in federal court.

New Orleans fired about 7000 teachers after Hurricane Katrina.  In 2014, a state appeals court ruled that Vallas conducted an improper RIF. The way it was done "denied teachers their constitutionally protected right to be recalled to employment." The RSD ignored the law that says when schools are taken over, existing teachers "shall be given priority consideration for employment in the same or comparable position." The cost of the reformers' contempt for the law could be $1 billion or more.

Now, the Colorado Education Association (CEA) is arguing in court that the Denver schools (DPS) misused the "mutual consent" provision of the state's controversial teacher evaluation law. The CEA challenges the Denver approach to reducing staff by discharging teachers without cause, violating both state law and the state constitution. An arbitrator previously ruled in favor of the Denver union, but the school system did not respect that judgment.

 The DPS has dismissed about 100 teachers in the name of mutual consent.

This policy is one of the cornerstones of corporate reform tactics. Mutual consent began as a part of the assault on seniority and it requires teachers who, through no fault of their own, had to transfer to another school to get approval from the receiving school's principal in order to transfer. In theory, it frees principals to mold their own school cultures and reject teachers who may not be a good "fit" in their schools.

It has also been argued that seniority produces a "dance of the lemons," or bad teachers, who land disproportionately in poor schools.  On the other hand, mutual consent offers districts a secret weapon for firing veteran teachers with high salaries, who might be union leaders or who might oppose the teach-to-the-test policies imposed on so many high-challenge schools. Such teachers are placed in a hiring pool, but somehow never "fit" into any openings, and are, in effect, fired without any sort of hearing or due process.

But, it is Colorado law. Something even more troubling has been alleged, however.

According to the Denver union (DCTA), the arbitrator found that the Denver schools created a file on teachers trying to obtain mutual consent by requiring principals to fill out a reference form that teachers were not allowed to see. According the union, this essentially created "J. Edgar Hoover-like secret files," The DCTA claims that several transferring teachers were offered jobs that were rescinded after the hiring principal saw the "reference file." As the DCTA explains, "when teachers do not know what has been said about them - they have no way of responding." 

And that gets us back to the fundamental principle of due process, and the need to prevent a return to the time when workers were routinely and secretly backlisted. If these allegations are proven, what should the corporate reformers who have helped fund such policies in Colorado, Louisiana, and Washington D.C. do to prevent the clock being turned back to the bad old days of unchecked exploitation? If they no knowledge of the injustices that have been inflicted on teachers, and they really want to help children, reformers will take action.

Here's my modest proposal. If these travesties were truly unintended results of well-intentioned policies, Bill Gates and the rest of the Billionaires Boys Club should own up to their contributions to the miscarriage of justice.  Reformers helped empower management without requiring checks and balances of its authority. They should take it upon themselves, pass the hat, and pay the back salaries of unfairly terminated teachers. If corporate reformers continue to ignore the legal rights of educators, however, it will be incontestable that they are blatantly anti-teacher.

What do you think?  Do we need to return to the 19th century campaign for workers to have the right to provide the paper on which their severance records are reported so that employers won't put secret black marks next to their names?  While those of us who closely follow school reform may have already concluded that corporate reformers are anti-union, anti-teacher, and anti-public education, not everyone has reached such a determination.  If reformers remain silent in the face of these assaults on educators' rights, could any fair-minded observer deny that their goals are privatization and the destruction of workers' rights?

Note: An earlier version of this post stated incorrectly that Paul Vallas was responsible for firing teachers in New Orleans and that the case was in federal, not state court.

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