The high cost of teacher removal

Ian Urbina in the NY Times reports on the case of a middle school teacher in Ohio accused of creationist leanings:

To some, Mr. Freshwater is a hero unfairly punished for standing up for his Christian beliefs. To others, he is a zealot who pushed those beliefs onto students.

Freshwaters supporters want to make this into a new and reverse version of the Scopes trial, said David Millstone, the lawyer for the Mount Vernon Board of Education, referring to the Tennessee teacher tried in 1925 for teaching evolution. We see this as a basic issue about students having a constitutional right to be free from religious indoctrination in the public schools.

I don't know how outrageous this guy's teaching was. Students and other teachers certainly are claiming that it was outrageous, and "calling a news conference" to announce you're removing religious posters from your classroom is outrageous behavior for a teacher.

But one thing certainly is outrageous about the case:

After an investigation, school officials notified Mr. Freshwater in June 2008 of their intent to fire him, but he asked for a pre-termination hearing, which has lasted more than a year and has cost the school board more than a half million dollars.

Why should it cost a half million dollars for a school district to fire a teacher for cause?

The barriers to firing bad teachers directly cause bad science education. Here's the choice school administrators have: put up with your bad teachers, or find $500,000 in the budget to cut while you slug it out.

There can't be any effective reform of science education without making the people who hire teachers able to support, promote and retain good ones. In the U.S., that means local school districts.

Line in the article that had me laughing really hard:

Among those attending school board meetings were members of a local group called the Minutemen.

If you know Watchmen, you'll understand the image I had in my mind.

UPDATE (2010-01-21): Some readers seem to think I don't even read the articles I link to. Yes, other folks have reported that this guy did some outrageous things. He apparently doesn't deny some of them, although for the most bizarre ("burning cross into students' arms") he has a non-religious explanation.

I wonder how many Tesla-ignorant school administrators are wheeling their Van de Graaff generators out the door today so they won't risk that lawsuit.

The Panda's Thumb has been carrying reports on the hearings from a correspondent in attendance. They're the best source if you want to dig into this case.

I'm amazed at how certain people become about how evil this teacher must be, just from reading about him in the media. Can't you see that it's in many people's interest to make him appear as evil as possible because that's the only way they can overcome the extreme barriers to firing him? That it's in the administrators' interest to have this in the New York Times, to show their small town why it was so important to spend $500,000 of the taxpayers' money on this teacher?

That it's in the teacher's interest to have this story as widely reported as possible, because what's he going to do after he loses his job but live off the adulation (and book contracts?) of the evangelical community?

There will always be bad teachers. The question is whether the system protects them, or protects students from them.

A major feature of the current hearing is how school administrators and school board members seem unable to figure out how to prevent exposing the district to legal problems! That's because the current system is rigged so that only a lawyer can figure it out. This case shows that the system does not protect students. The system does do a good job of skimming money out of the schools to put into the pockets of bad teachers.