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Laid off from teaching—forever

Why Chicago Public Schools slapped its "do-not-hire" designation on another highly rated teacher.

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Under normal circumstances Raquel Garcia would seem like the kind of young, bright, idealistic teacher Chicago Public Schools would welcome into the classroom.

Bilingual in English and Spanish, a graduate of CPS (Lane Tech, class of '01), Garcia wanted to teach in her hometown. In 2009 she took a job teaching kindergarten at Chase elementary school in Logan Square, where she won accolades and good ratings from her supervisors.

Yet the honchos at the CPS central office spent the better part of the last few months trying to ban Garcia from teaching in CPS for life.

Welcome to the ongoing saga of the district's dastardly do-not-hire designation.

Do-not-hire is a bureaucratic label that former schools CEO Ron Huberman invented to keep "bad" teachers out of classrooms in Chicago. The problem is that CPS arbitrarily applies it to hundreds of teachers who are "bad," "mediocre," and "good," as hard as those standards are to judge. Among them is Allison Bates, a former science teacher at Austin Polytechnical high school who was slapped with the designation for the egregious sin of not putting her lesson plans in the little red folder as her former principal wanted. Because, people, where would we be as a society if teachers did not properly file plans in their little red folders?

CPS routinely applies the do-not-hire designation to probationary teachers—that is, those without tenure—who have been given an unsatisfactory rating by their principal or who have not been rehired at their schools on two occasions.

Never mind that an unsatisfactory rating could be the byproduct of any number of scenarios, including bad blood between one principal and one teacher, as was the case with Bates. Or that it might not be a good idea to routinely slap dozens of teachers with lifetime teaching bans before at least hearing their side of the story.

The board of ed approved the policy without public debate or discussion—which is generally how the board approves most policies—at a meeting last summer.

In fact, Huberman did not officially notify the Chicago Teachers Union of the new policy until the very day the board adopted it. At the time, CTU president Marilyn Stewart was a lame duck, having just lost an election to Karen Lewis. So Huberman effectively sprung do-not-hire on the union when its leaders were preoccupied—timing, I'm sure, that was completely coincidental.

Word of do-not-hire spread last summer, when principals suddenly found themselves in the awkward position of essentially having to tell job applicants—many of whom had been laid off from other schools because of budget cuts—"I'd love to hire you but the central office says I can't."

Thus began a year of battles over the policy, including behind-the-scenes negotiations, grievance filings, and finally litigation. The matter is now before the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board.

Bottom line: CPS claims the right to create and enforce the do-not-hire policy because no one, especially the union, can "force the Board to hire nonemployees whom the Board deems unqualified for rehire," as a lawyer for CPS put it in one recent filing.

To which the union responds with something like this: You stubborn dimwits! This is not about firing unqualified teachers—it's about employing a rigidly bureaucratic, one-size-fits-all personnel policy that routinely bans dozens of teachers from the classroom.

Of course, they say it a bit more formally in the legal documents.

At the moment, the union has filed grievances on behalf of roughly 60 teachers hit with the designation, though it's hard to say for certain how many actually have the designation.

That's because—get this—CPS claims it doesn't have an official do-not-hire list. And officials don't routinely notify anyone who has the designation. Generally, the only way teachers even find out that they've been do-not-hired is when they apply for another job in the system. So there are maybe several hundred teachers—including some who are now working in other systems or who have quit the profession altogether—who have the designation and don't even know it.

Lucky them.

Garcia went to work at Chase in the winter of 2009. In June of that year, her principal told her that she wouldn't be hired back because of budget cuts. Apparently, the cuts were restored, because a few weeks later the principal asked Garcia to come back.

At the end of the 2010 school year, however, Garcia was let go because of budget cuts, and this time they weren't restored enough for her to return.

For much of the next year, she traveled, worked as a tutor in a program run by the Chicago Public Library, and tried to get other teaching jobs. This July, when she tried to fill out an online application to teach elsewhere in CPS, she got the following e-mail message from the district's Department of Human Capital: "Please be advised that based on CPS hiring guidelines, you are ineligible for employment."

This was news to Garcia. She called the central office and wound up having a conversation with a bureaucrat whose name she never learned that went something like this:

Garcia: Why am I on the ineligible list?

Bureaucrat: Because you're ineligible to work.

The bureaucrats at the central office are always so helpful. Q

Q After filing a grievance, she eventually figured out that she was designated do-not-hire because on two occasions she hadn't been asked to return to her school—even though the first time she had actually been asked to return. The distinction was apparently lost on CPS.

"We've had this issue with other teachers," says Sara Echevarria, who handles grievance issues for the Chicago Teachers Union. "The CPS position is that you're still 'nonrenewed' even if you were renewed after you weren't renewed—as crazy as that sounds."

It's even crazier when you consider that Garcia was never "not renewed" in the first place. That is, the reason she was not immediately rehired was that the school had budget problems—not that she received an unsatisfactory rating from her principal.

In other words, the do-not-hire designation intended to protect students from "bad" teachers is effectively protecting them from "good" teachers as well. And you wonder why I have a hard time saying anything nice about the central office.

At the July 27 school board meeting, Garcia and several other teachers all but begged and pleaded with schools CEO J.C. Brizard and the board members to free them from the do-not-hire badge of shame.

Miracle of miracles, it worked, at least in Garcia's case.

On August 8, CPS told the union that it would drop her do-not-hire designation if she dropped her grievance.

What made CPS change its bureaucratic mind? Officially, we don't know. CPS never contacted Garica directly, and district spokespeople did not respond to my requests for comment.

But there are a couple of theories. One, proffered by boosters of Brizard, is that the CEO was moved by Garcia's testimony.

The other, offered by union leaders, is that the case against Garcia was so weak that by pursuing it CPS risked undermining its legal and public-relations efforts to keep the do-not-hire policy in place. In other words, CPS conceded the small battle to win the larger war.

So it's either compassion or cunning—you decide.

In any event, Garcia now says she's not sure she wants to return to CPS. "Nothing really has changed," she says. "They still have the do-not-hire designation. They still claim the right to apply it to someone else. I could be in the same position next year."

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