Our Opinion: Start PPS reforms at state agency
We believe most people enter the education profession because they want to help kids, and expect their colleagues to share that commitment, which is why a pair of stories published by the Portland Tribune last week are so infuriating.
As revealed by reporter Beth Slovic, Portland Public Schools paid a special-education teacher $139,000 for 22 months, even after he was deemed a "danger to students" in November 2015 and was jailed six times, racking up charges for drunken driving, disorderly conduct, domestic violence and harassment. In fact, the school district didn't stop paying Andrew Oshea until after the Portland Tribune highlighted his case last August.
Slovic's account was packed with disturbing details about a teacher who was quick to use physical force in the classroom and at home, a district that was slow to act, and a state licensing agency that seems powerless to keep teachers like Oshea out of Oregon classrooms.
But it also left many questions that deserve answers. Here are just two:
n How many more Andrew Osheas are out there?
By most accounts, Oshea is an outlier. But how many other educators are collecting paychecks while suspended from teaching, while Portland Public Schools officials dodge and dither, wasting public funds?
We don't know, because PPS refuses to turn over a list of employees on paid leave, fighting a public records request that Slovic made 14 months ago, when working for Willamette Week.
When the district balked, Slovic appealed to the Multnomah County district attorney, who in March 2017 ordered PPS lawyer Stephanie Harper to fork over the list. Instead, the district immediately sued Slovic (and activist Kim Sordyl, who'd also requested the documents) to prevent the public document from being made public.
Harper argued PPS needed "clarity" around a state law PPS newly believed prevented disclosure. But since filing the suit last year, PPS has taken no steps to advance its suit, leaving the request in legal limbo.
Harper quit in November, a month after new Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero took over and four months after three new members joined the school board. Guerrero and the new board, which talks a lot about transparency, should follow the orders of the DA, end this misguided public records battle, and release the list of suspended employees.
n How do we get rid of the "lemons"?
Any engaged parent will quickly be amazed by the dedication displayed by most teachers. But they also will learn that there's an informal, unwritten list of "bad teachers" shared by students, parents and administrators alike.
Often these staff members get bounced around different schools within a district (often without paperwork of their past offenses), a practice so common it has its own slang term: "Dance of the lemons."
Oregonian reporter Bethany Barnes documented a classic — and frightening — example of this in her recent investigation of physical education instructor Mitch Whitehurst, who sexually harassed students and co-workers at several PPS schools before finally having his license revoked.
There are good reasons why it should be tough to fire a competent teacher. But there's nothing gained when lemons like Whitehurst and Oshea are allowed to keep their jobs.
The task of disciplining licensed teachers falls to the Oregon Teacher Standards and Practices Commission (TSPC). The state agency has set a goal of resolving investigations in six months or less. But according to its most recent report, it typically takes twice that long; less than a quarter of cases are resolved in six months.
What's more, as seen in the Oshea case, the commission has little authority to sanction teachers for their actions outside the classroom. Several years ago, TSPC reprimanded an educator who played a practical joke on a colleague on school grounds. But the agency said it was powerless to sanction
Oshea, who pulled an ex-girlfriend from her bed by her hair.
Even more troubling is that Oshea did exhibit questionable behavior at school, holding a special-education student on the floor by his head. That drew criticism from his supervisor, but no action from TSPC. That's because there are only a handful of crimes — involving child abuse, sex abuse and illegal drugs — that automatically disqualify someone from teaching in Oregon.
Oregon's legislative leaders recently formed a panel of lawmakers to tour the state in an effort to shape a major education reform effort. We suspect they'll get an earful about bad teachers. If they are looking for a place for reforms, TSPC would be a good place to start.