Tough to fire teachers — unless they work at a charter school

Dismissing a public school teacher is a long, arduous process. For charter schools, it's pretty darn easy.

So, Charleston County Schools have spent $650,000 in the past three years paying teachers to not work.

And people wonder how the district could get $18 million in the hole.

See, any teacher who is fired — or simply doesn’t have their contract renewed — can appeal that decision. Those appeals have to be heard by a majority of the school board and, until then, the district has to keep paying the teacher.

The problem is getting five board members together for basically an all-day trial.

What could go wrong? It’s not like school board members have jobs or other commitments. And hey, they get a whole $25 for their trouble.

Well, this is what can go wrong: Gathering at least five board members and lawyers for both sides can take forever. Some teachers wait months — one sat for nearly two years — to find out what’s going to happen to them.

That’s not fair to the teachers or taxpayers. And it’s not fair to board members, who are hired to set policy, not practice labor law or sit on juries.

But this is the system adopted by state lawmakers to protect the rights of teachers.

Unless they work at a charter school.

Yes, charter schools can fire teachers at will, just like most businesses in South Carolina.

See, the state believes charter schools deserve all the tools they can get to make themselves successful. And one of those tools is the power to rid themselves of teachers a charter school’s board feels aren’t working out.

You know, it doesn’t matter whether you think charter schools are the greatest thing since SEC football or that they undermine traditional public education, that’s not an even playing field. Why would the state apply different rules to different schools?

Unless the conspiracy theorists are right — that the state is doing its best to undermine public education.

Charleston County was allowed last year to hire hearing officers to handle these appeals, and it cut the wait times by a third and expenses by half. But it took years to get that law passed, partly because some lawmakers believe teachers deserve to have their cases heard by a diverse and representative school board. That’s a fair point.

But why do charter school teachers not deserve the same?

If those schools deserve to avoid laws to help them succeed, then it sounds as if no one cares whether public schools — where most kids get their education — are successful.

Of course, making it harder for school districts to work is practically a way of life at the Statehouse.

The way the law works, if a public school principal isn’t happy with a teacher, they have to do a one-year evaluation of said teacher, and it must start at the beginning of the school year.

So, if there’s a problem with a teacher in October, you have to wait until the following August to start the evaluation. The allegedly suspect teacher is allowed to remain in the classroom nearly two academic years.

That’s just brilliant. And if that person is doing a poor job with their students they are passing on those problems to the next teacher.

No wonder charter schools seem to do so much better.

Teachers do a tough job, and the vast majority of them are hard-working and dedicated. They sure aren’t doing it for the cash. But they want a system that both protects them but doesn’t leave them stuck pulling someone else’s dead weight.

The whole idea behind charter school is self-governance, a way to cut the bureaucratic red tape and put the focus on education. That’s a fine and noble goal.

But if charter schools are really showing dramatically better results, the question is why the state forces public schools to keep operating under that burdensome red tape in the first place.

Unless, of course, some politicians really do have it in for public schools.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com.