Ariz. Educators at Odds Over Student-Discipline Law

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Arizona administrators, school board members, and teachers seem to agree on one thing: Student discipline is a problem.

But the groups part company when it comes to a new law intended to address the issue.

Republican Gov. Fife Symington last month signed into law a bill designed to give teachers more control over classroom discipline. The new law allows teachers to keep chronically disruptive students out of their classes until a special school panel meets to decide whether to return the students to the classroom or to search for other options.

The state's teachers' unions say the law is needed to restore teacher authority. But administrator and school board groups say the law will foster micromanagement and unnecessary bureaucracy, may violate students' due process rights, and does not come with the funding support to create alternative education programs.

"Our primary concern is that the problem not get pushed under the table by an administrator who says,'I'm short on options or maybe short on competency, therefore I'll just recycle the kid back into the classroom and make you, the teacher, deal with it,'" said Terry L. Forthun, the president of the American Federation of Teachers' Arizona affiliate. "Where you have a good administrator and a good discipline code supported by the local school board, those districts won't be affected by this law at all."

Teachers already may send students to the principal's office for misbehavior, and school boards routinely deal with student suspension and expulsion.

But the new law, which goes into effect this July, requires schools to set up a three-member review panel made up of two teachers and one administrator. If a school principal wants to send a student back to the classroom but the teacher objects, the panel must meet within three days to determine whether to return the student to his or her original classroom or to determine where else the student should be placed.

Unintended Problems?

The problem, said Michael C. Smith, the legislative consultant to the Arizona School Administrators Association, is that, particularly in smaller or rural districts, there may be no place to send a disruptive student.

Some larger, urban districts have set up alternative programs for students who are not succeeding in regular classrooms, but those programs are the exception rather than the rule, he added.

And simply shifting unruly students from one 5th grade teacher to another--assuming the school is big enough--may just produce burnout among teachers who prove successful with such students, said Kathy Christie, a policy analyst with the Denver-based Education Commission of the States. "In the end, I don't know how much benefit this is to teachers," she said. "It might just stir up a lot of unintended problems."

Teachers' union officials say they will be on the lookout for such problems, and they acknowledge that the law is far from perfect. While states such as Texas have enacted similar legislation, many of the laws have come with money to design alternative programs; Arizona's does not.

"We would've preferred not only regulations, but also dollars for alternative education settings for students," Mr. Forthun said. But in fiscally conservative Arizona, "putting an appropriation on it would've been a death knell."

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