Teach, Or Consequences

April 01, 2001 4 min read
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Sheila Williams and Donald Eisloeffel were expecting a change for the better this school year. They hoped to start the teaching jobs they’d accepted last spring in one of South Carolina’s richest counties and to leave behind similar positions in one of the state’s poorest areas.

Instead, they found themselves downgraded to “substitute teacher”—with their pay reduced accordingly—while the state school board spent months considering if they’d wrongly broken their contracts with the school system they left, the 3,000-student Jasper district. Last year, that county’s schools filed complaints with the state about six such breaches of contract. The top penalty: losing their teaching licenses for up to a year.

Finally, in February, the school board reinstated Williams as a full-fledged teacher—but retroactively suspended her for two months. Eisloeffel regained full-time status too, with no suspension, because the board determined that, based on the circumstances surrounding his case, he had acted in good faith. For the teachers’ lawyer, Deena McRacken, the rulings say: “You leave at your peril.” Yet, she notes, officials “will look at the facts and circumstances [of the departure], especially if you give ample notice.”

While the severity of the teachers’ ordeal is still relatively rare, it’s a sign of the times. As the competition to lure enough qualified teachers intensifies, districts are becoming sticklers about ensuring that teachers honor their work agreements. From the East Coast to the Pacific Northwest, schools are making it clear that teachers who breach their contracts could face tough consequences.

“Districts are now enforcing this, whereas in the past, they said, ‘That’s all right, we’ll let you go,’ ” says Julie Underwood, general counsel for the National School Boards Association. “Right now, because of the teacher shortage, that’s not an option. When you lose somebody, it’s much more difficult to find a replacement.”

Although education groups are now hearing more about the practice, the authority of districts to rein in teachers who jump ship is nothing new. Generally, teachers are offered renewed contracts in the spring and are given a matter of weeks or months to let their employers know if they plan to stay. A Texas statute, for example, requires that educators notify their employers no later than 45 days before the beginning of the school year if they plan to leave. In many states, the timeline is backed by statutes permitting districts to file complaints with the state to seek license revocations. Often, a revocation can last as long as a year.

Like many systems in the Lone Star State, however, the Fort Worth district historically has not enforced its time limit. If a few teachers wanted to leave, the thinking went, it made little sense to stand in their way, explains Mauro Serrano, the associate superintendent for human resources for the 78,000- student district. This past summer, though, Fort Worth officials decided they couldn’t afford to be so lenient; they’d received requests from dozens of teachers looking to escape their contracts just a few weeks before school started. So the district spread the word: It was ready and willing to go after the licenses of teachers who left on such short notice.

“If there was an unusual hardship or circumstance, like if a husband or wife got promoted and had to move across the state, we would consider that,” Serrano says. “But in general, it was an issue of, we’ve got a contract, and we have to have a certified teacher in the classroom at the beginning of school.”

The evidence that more and more districts nationwide are becoming as strict is mostly anecdotal. But some teachers’ unions report a jump in the number of calls from members upset because they’ve been told they can’t get out of their contracts. Officials with the California Teachers Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association, say they’ve received as many as 30 such calls in each of the past couple of years, while several years ago, they received none. Leaders of the Washington Education Association, another NEA affiliate, say they were inundated with similar inquiries around the beginning of this school year.

“People call sobbing,” says Jerry Painter, the WEA’s general counsel. “They have a for-sale sign in front of their house, and they’ve told their in-laws that they’re moving. And then they’re told, ‘We will get your certificate pulled.’ ”

Though the number of teachers complaining of such threats is growing, those who’ve actually had their licenses suspended remain few. The Fort Worth schools wound up not filing any breach-of-contract complaints this year, even after making the point that they could. And despite the many calls received by the WEA, the Washington state education department reports handling just five cases this year that dealt with teachers breaking their contracts.

Ultimately, the threat of license suspension may work a bit like nuclear deterrence: Those wielding the weapon also have ample reasons not to trigger it. For one, every revoked license removes a teacher from the work force. And some officials warn that the reputation of being an overly strict district could backfire by dissuading teachers from applying there.

The practice of Larry Nyland, the human resources director of the 18,000- student Highline schools in Washington state, has been to allow teachers to get out of contracts once the district finds a replacement. “If we are too rigorous in protecting the rights of the district, then we run the risk of being perceived as being uncaring and insensitive to legitimate teacher needs,” he says.

“But,” he adds, “we also want to be fair to the students and the taxpayers who are expecting a level of quality in the classroom.”

—Jeff Archer


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