By K. Lloyd Billingsley | Op Ed in the LA Daily News
14 August -- THE Los Angeles Unified School District has been given permission to fire Matthew Kim, a disabled special education teacher who has not worked for seven years while drawing his full salary and benefits. Kim's case shows the need for district reform, but it's hardly alone in that regard.
Kim was one of approximately 160 "housed" teachers in the LAUSD - those deemed inappropriate for the classroom for reasons ranging from simple inefficiency to suspicion of criminal activity - but who continue to get paid. They cost the LAUSD a reported $10 million a year.
Kim alone cost the district $2 million during his absence from the classroom, during which time he was still paid his annual salary of $68,000. If the district actually fires him, it would be a rare occasion - and not just for the LAUSD.
Between 1990 and 1999 statewide in California, only 227 similar housed teacher cases reached the final stage of the dismissal process, according to "Unsatisfactory Performance: How California's K-12 Education System Protects Mediocrity, and How Teacher Quality Can Be Improved," a Pacific Research Institute study released in 2000.
The number actually fired is far lower. Between 1990 and 1999, only a single LAUSD teacher went through the entire dismissal process.
LAUSD Superintendent Ramon C. Cortines told the Los Angeles Times that if he had his way, he would fire all of the housed teachers, whom he accused of "milking the system." The will of the superintendent, however, is practically irrelevant in such matters.
But why should Kim alone take the fall, rather than some of the other 160 teachers being paid not to teach?
Kim was born with cerebral palsy but that affliction did not prevent him from earning a degree in physics from the University of California at Berkeley. He is on record saying that he went into teaching to help disabled students.
He uses a wheelchair and requires a full-time teacher's aide in the classroom. Kim has been accused of inappropriate comments and sexual harassment for touching the breasts of co-workers. He has use of only one arm and claims the actions were involuntary.
In 2003, the state Commission on Professional Competence recommended that Kim not be fired, even though some of his actions could be considered sexual harassment.
Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge David P. Yaffe criticized the lower rulings and recently gave the LAUSD the go-ahead to fire Kim. At this writing, the LAUSD has yet to respond.
The charges against Kim, though serious, are not criminal behavior. However, some of the housed teachers, according to news reports, are bordering on criminal. If Kim gets the ax, will more of them be fired as well?
Based on the record and current policy, one doubts it. The cases have already consumed millions of taxpayer dollars. The system for dismissing unprofessional teachers obviously needs streamlining.
A larger issue involves the students and their parents. They are the ones who must deal with incompetent teachers, usually assigned on the basis of seniority, not expertise or suitability for a particular class of students. Students must also attend the school to which they are assigned.
Educational choice would change that and give parents and students the power to fire the whole bunch. Based on the record, they could only do a better job than the Los Angeles Unified School District.
K. Lloyd Billingsley is editorial director of the San Francisco-based Pacific Research Institute (www.pacificresearch.org), a conservative/libertarian think tank.