AJC teacher quality series: Georgia’s Fair Dismissal Law makes it costly to fire problem educators

over (Medium)Today’s installment of the AJC series on teacher quality in the Sunday AJC concentrates on teacher job protections and the obstacles to firing problem teachers.

I have found  great disagreement among education leaders on how hard it is to remove an ineffective or problem teacher from the classroom. Some school chiefs tell me it is a matter of careful documentation and can be done, while others say it’s a major undertaking that saps all their time and energy and still ends up in court battles.

In the fifth entry in the ongoing AJC teacher quality series, reporters describe a recent tribunal hearing to fire an Atlanta teacher for incompetence and insubordination:  Located at the district’s headquarters, the hearing room is staged like a traditional courtroom: In front sits a hearing officer, paid for by the district to oversee the proceedings. To the officer’s right: three tribunal members, designated by the school board, who in Atlanta can each bill up to $150 a day, plus expenses. To the officer’s left, a court stenographer who typically charges $100 a day plus $7 per transcript page. And facing the officer and tribunal sits the school district’s attorney, behind stacks of papers that hint at the hours spent investigating the case.

The AJC is making this occasional series on teacher quality available only to subscribers. You can read today’s full article by picking up a copy of Sunday’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution or logging on to the paper’s iPad app. Here is a link to the AJC digital options, including an E-subscription, which gives you the actual paper online.

Here is a link to our Part 1 discussion here on the blog.

Here is a link to our Part 2 discussion.

Here is a link to our Part 3 discussion:

Here is a link to our Part 4 discussion:

And here are some findings from today’s installment of the teacher quality series:

–The Atlanta cheating scandal is shining a spotlight on teacher job protections, which were abolished in 2000 under then-Gov. Roy Barnes but restored three years later by his successor, Gov. Sonny Perdue.

–Atlanta taxpayers are spending $1 million a month to keep about 130 educators named in the report on paid leave while the district prepares legal cases needed to fire them. The school district expects to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars more in legal fees. That’s because schools must build legal cases against teachers with three or more years of experience, who can only be let go for eight allowable reasons. Teachers can appeal their firing all the way to the state Supreme Court.

–Supporters of the law say teachers need protection  against unwarranted accusations or angry parents, or from the political maneuvering of meddling school board members. But critics say the laws are an impediment to Georgia’s attempt to improve the quality of the teaching workforce. As the pressure to improve test scores increases, they argue, so must the flexibility to remove bad teachers.

–The time and financial commitment required to fire a teacher in Georgia means only a small number of teachers in metro Atlanta districts -  less than 1 percent of the workforce – are let go in any given year.

–It often takes a year to build a case against a teacher for low performance, but by law the case usually can’t include actions from previous school years. In other words, once a teacher signs a contract for the new school year, problems from the past can’t be used as evidence to fire them.

–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog

164 comments Add your comment

Neil Murray

October 10th, 2011
10:54 am

Y’all spend too much time focused on Atlanta. In rural South Georgia, schools often fire teachers for grossly unreasonable causes, often in the middle of a contract. One of my Georgia Southern students told of having five teachers in a year; another reported that his teacher was booted out for making fun of the school’s location next to a hog farm!

John Adams

October 10th, 2011
11:08 am

@Dr. John Trotter: While putting it in your own inimitable way, you’ve certainly hit the nail on the head yet again. As someone who’s now been on both sides of the Fair Dismissal table, i.e., both as a big school system HR director and now defending teachers for Educators First, the law definitely should NOT be watered down, let alone repealed. The vast majority of public school teachers do a good job, and they deserve to be insulated from the exact concerns you cited: parent complaints, disruptive students, an obsessive focus on test scores, and, yes, even the occasional administrator run amok. Fair Dismissal, flawed though it may be, at least gives veteran teachers some measure of protection and offers a reasonable balance between the needs of the individual teacher and in the interests of the district as an employer. As you wisely pointed out, local school administrators need tenure at least as much as teachers, so that they can back up good teachers by telling parents “no” without fear of repercussions from the central office. In my experience, APs (virtually all of whom are non-tenured by now) are non-renewed at about 2-3 times the per capita rate of classroom teachers. In general, we need to stop focusing our school reform efforts primarily on blaming teachers. Given the raw materials with which they have to work and the relative lack of student discipline in schools, today’s teachers are generally doing an excellent job under the circumstances.


October 10th, 2011
11:10 am

If Fair Dismissal is taken away…take away the contract and allow teachers to leave anytime during the school year like a “regular” job….see how long that lasts in a good economy.

Good Mother

October 10th, 2011
11:31 am

The rest of us — the non-teachers — don’t have guaranteed jobs. We in the private sector can be dismissed for any reason and no reason at all.

Teachers need to get the 411 that their job is a good one and they need to be thankful .

There is a huge recession out here (in case teachers haven’t noticed)…so get with it or get out of the procession.

Quit whining. Start working.


October 10th, 2011
12:14 pm

Speaking out of both sides of your mouth – The AJC and Maureen Downey just published a critique of schools for having too many new teachers. This is another example of the double-speak that the media and businesses are using to malign teachers who work hard every day.

The short answer is YES we can fire poor teachers, even those who have been around. Since politics can get involved in the process, it is fair for teachers to have a certain level of protection. When it comes right down to the brass tacks of the firing process, it is not the principals or superintendents who fire the poor teachers. It is the board of education. They are the only ones who can take that action. Most cases of keeping poor teachers in the classroom can be easily linked to boards of education who lack the will to fire the low-performing teachers.

However, it is my position that the percentage of teachers who are low-performing and deserve to be fired is actually much lower than you are making it out to be. After all, if you read your own articles, you know the many teachers quit after the first or second year of teaching. These are usually the ones that can’t cut it in the classrooms. They are convinced to resign and move on. Sometimes, their contracts are non-renewed. Sometimes they are let go through other means. The bottom line is this – schools do a pretty good job of rooting out the poorest quality teachers.

Not a cheater

October 10th, 2011
1:12 pm

Teaching is like many other governments jobs. There is little accountability if you are unable or unwilling to perform the job you were hired to do. Protections were built to prevent workers from being fired for political reasons but are now used to protect the grossly incompetent. So failing teachers and school administrators, as well as other government employees are allowed to continue because it is too difficult to get rid of them. Certainly some administrators would try to get rid of teachers they do not like—but that situation would be no more common than it is in the private sector. Government jobs at all levels have become a form of welfare—one someone has the job it is theirs almost for life. During my teaching career I came across several incompetent teachers but never saw one terminated for poor performance. They would never have succeeded in the private sector.

Maureen contradicts herself yet again

October 10th, 2011
1:18 pm

Notice Maureen’s claims that it isn’t an inflammatory piece, but then goes deathly silent when the “blame teachers first” ad is exposed by one of the posters here?

But of course do we really expect any less of Maureen, who thinks discipline isn’t a “pressing issue” retaliation is a rare occurrence, and Beverly Hall should remain the Superintendent of APS for the “stability” she provides?

At least Bookman had the integrity to admit the error of his ways in regard to Hall and show buyer remorse.


October 10th, 2011
3:32 pm

Have we really gotten to the point where we want to do away with due process just because we have to pay for it. Do you trust the school administrators to do the right thing without oversight? Remember, it was the superintendent of Atlanta schools who was at the top of the list of wrong doers during the scandal. There were also principals on the list.

so much to do..so little time

October 10th, 2011
4:35 pm

Maureen…You are most welcome in my classroom for a day to really see and understand EVERYTHING we deal with above and beyond pray tell, the art of teaching.

Last one and I'm out

October 10th, 2011
4:44 pm

@ Dr. John Trotter. Don’t you get tired of defending incompetent and lazy teachers. I know they probably make up just a small percentage of teachers, but you still sound like you’re in denial about bad teachers. I would love to know the percentage of good teachers you actually represent. Please keep in mind that teachers, just as parents, students and administrators play a large part in the educational process. You seem to want to blame everyone except teachers. I suggest that if all involved took responsibility for their part in the process then we wouldn’t be in the mess we are in. Just wondering what school system were you an administrator, and if you were so great why aren’t you there, where you might do the most good. Instead of out on the fringes agitating and brewing mess.

APS Dedicated Teacher Still

October 10th, 2011
5:04 pm

Dr. Trotter uses his name, what about you?

[...] I have received a lot of feedback on the ongoing AJC teacher quality series, much of critical toward the Sunday piece on how hard it is to fire ineffective teachers. (This series is subscriber only, so I can’t reproduce a lot of it here, but this is a sampling.) [...]


October 11th, 2011
6:31 am

@Good Mother…I concur…so y not give teachers the opportunity to leave anytime they want to like on a regular job? Would you like that? Would u like your child’s teacher to have the ability to give a two weeks notice and be out?


October 11th, 2011
2:47 pm

First, I agree that whistle-blower protections need to be strengthened. Seems from prior AJC articles that the due process protections currently in place aren’t enough to protect genuine whistle-blowers. Tenure seems both broader than necessary to protect the actual whistle-blowers (apparently it is protecting dozens of confessed cheaters right now), and too weak to actually protect whistle-blowers adequately.

Beyond better whistle-blower laws (and others laws that protect employees generally, such as those against sexual harassment), I’m not convinced that teachers have unique needs for protection from bad decision-making by administrators.

But let’s say they do. If we are going to have broad due process protections / tenure like the ones we have now (where apparently even those who admitted under oath to intentional cheating feel that they can stay and fight, and who knows, perhaps extort settlements even under those circumstances), what about this: can’t we at least have the right, when we finally get through successfully proving incompetence or egregious actions like cheating and terminate the teacher, why can’t we at leave have the right to a return of the monies spent, or at least the money paid to a teacher during the process? Why should a teacher who actually was incompetent or actually committed some egregious act, be on paid leave, doing nothing, for months and months ($1 million a month, while our kids are being crowded into classes with waivers on class sizes, etc.) and then get to KEEP all that money at the end? Would you agree to that change in the law, John Trotter? Give them their hearings, even pay them during the proceedings, but if they lose, an automatic claw-back of that pay and the cost of the benefits they received while they did nothing?