State Education Superintendent Mick Zais told a legislative panel that the system used to fire underperforming teachers is flawed. Zais testified before memmbers of the Senate Education Committee Tuesday. He said one of the critical ways to improve public schools is to fine tune the way underperforming teachers are terminated.
Zais said it’s important that teachers have the right to due process, however the system now is overly legalistic.
“Obviously we must protect teachers from arbitrary and capricious dismissal, on the other hand we must protect students from ineffective teachers. It’s a balancing act. I think right now we protect teachers at the expense of students and we need to right the balance between those two,” Zais said.
He wants changes to the state’s Teacher Employment Dismissal Act
“You didn’t do the necessary counseling, you didn’t establish a positive organizational climate, you did not supervise the development of this teacher, and you didn’t provide opportunities.” “It’s the principal who’s on trial at these hearings,” said Zais.
Zais said principals have expressed that if a school board overturns a teacher’s dismissal, it becomes almost impossible for the principal to discipline or reprimand that employee.
“If the board overturns the recommendation to separate an ineffective teacher, when that teacher returns to the classroom, they operate with impunity because any follow up action will be branded as retribution and the principal herself will be on trial.”
Zais said he would like to see school superintendents granted the power to make the final decision in teacher termination appeals.
Columbia attorney Al Nickles, who has handled teacher dismissal cases for 30 years, said the current law has stood the test of time and there is no need to fix a system that is not broken.
“We’ve had since 1976 a statute in place that has given teachers the right to challenge what they think are unfair employment decisions and it’s worked. We have a strong body of judicial opinions that support that statute and to jettison that at this point I believe would be foolish,” he said.
Nickles said a school administration has seven years to decide if a person has exhibited the skills and performance to be granted a continuing contract and he believes that is sufficient time to make a sound decision on whether a person can have an effective and successful career in the teaching profession.
“If an administration perhaps does not do its job and provides a continuing contract to a teacher that perhaps should not have earned that contract, they shouldn’t come crying now to the General Assembly now and say ‘change the law.’ The law has provided an adequate opportunity for them to indicate those teachers they want to retain and do not want to retain.”
Nickles works with the South Carolina Education Association, a teachers’ interest group.