Friday, June 11, 1999
CCHS teachers sue the state
In words laced with the imagery of Thoreau, and references to fighting evil in the context of German history, rather than the jargon of a legal complaint, six teachers reiterated their beliefs in a press conference Tuesday night in a hot Concord-Carlisle classroom. On Monday, June 17, the group, led by Concord-Carlisle High School's Elliot Lilien and Wilson Flight, will take the state to court for its revocation of teaching certificates that "were clearly marked for life." The teachers, veterans all, with enough credentials among them to impress the most skeptical critic, are fighting the state's policy to replace their lifetime contracts with certificates that need renewal every five years. They are expected to accumulate 120 professional development points (PDP), and pay $100 to renew certification. If this is not done by Tuesday, June 18, they are deemed by the state to be "unemployable," despite their fine reputations.
The teachers have been asked why they are willing to lose their jobs for this. They have been asked what is wrong with the state trying to maintain progressive education reform. They have been asked if they don't have an obligation to teach at all costs. And they have their answers ready. Ed Burke, a teacher from Milton, was told that his teaching certificate was good for life, revokable only in cases of just cause, moral issues, or incompetence. "This deems everyone incompetent," he said Tuesday night. "It makes us start over every five years and prove ourselves." One teacher exclaimed, "Its like Nomar Garciaparra hitting .280 and being told "come on kid, time to go back to hitting school!"
Barry Hazzard, an English teacher at Chelmsford High, said quietly when asked why he was there, "My students who know me, would know why I'm here. We read in literature about people who have to make difficult decisions. Sometimes, like in John Proctor's The Crucible, those decisions are about our life. It might not be life or death, but it's my life. As Thoreau said, we have a choice when we have an unjust law. We can follow it, or we can do something about it."
Malden High school's Adalino Cabral, with 42 teaching certificates and seven master's degrees, said, "I was a high school dropout. I was pushed around. We are now being pushed around....The state can't walk on people, ask us for 120 PDPs, its ridiculous! These are diddly courses! And I'm mad about it."
"It's not the money," said Eliot Lilien, who has refused offers from others willing to pay the fees for him. "It's that the money has been extorted from us through fear. They're stealing it with threats and fearto make us do busywork to keep our jobs. It's demeaning to our profession, and we won't do it. If a state makes a commitment it should last a lifetime...The idea that you can make bad teachers better with testing, and sitting through seminars, that doesn't make bad teachers better. Bad teachers can eat well and sit in a seminar. What makes good teachers is a solid evaluating system, respect, and good salary. Everything else is smoke and pretending and political deals." When the Mosquito asked Lilien if he saw his struggle as itself a form of teaching, his reply was "Of course."
In the complaint against the Commonwealth, Exhibit A consists of a letters from former chair of the Massachusetts Board of Education John Silber to Flight stating, "The present system of teacher recertification and professional development is essentially mindless." Dean of Education Edwin Delattre agrees, in a letter to Lilien and Flight, "...what qualifies in Massachusetts for PDP credit is intellectually bankrupt, an insult to the intelligence and accomplishments of good teachers. It is clearly true that recertification requirements can easily be satisfied by incompetent teachers who attend mindless workshops that have nothing to do with either the mastery of academic subject matter or the achievement of artistry in teaching." Lilien, who among other accomplishments, was asked to write the social studies Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment test for 1998, finds the idea of forcing "mindless" PDP courses down qualified teachers' throats insulting. Yet, despite agreement from prominent figures in education, thousands of teachers pursue these requirements every year in order to remain "employable."
The teacher's lawyer, Peter Larkowich, compared the state of education reform as a failed engineering attempt. The plaintiffs are armed with five counts against the state grounded in themes such as breach of contract and loss of property without due compensation.
On Monday, the teachers seek an injunction against the defendants to keep them from doing anything that will endanger their jobs. Although Lilien and Flight have received "as much support as could possibly be expected at the superintendent level," CCHS Superintendent Eugene Thayer is listed as one of several defendants for implementing the law. As School Committee Chair Cynthia Nock said, "We'll keep trying to help ed reform, but we're not going to break the law." She reiterated that one should "look at the whole intent of ed reform; it isn't about the good teachers." Still, she and others tried without luck to find a way out at the state level, and said she hated to think about losing two of the systems best teachers. Despite this, she maintained, "It's between them and the state now." Yet, with school superintendents on the defendant list, administration cannot simply pass responsibility on to the state.
The support Lilien and Flight have received at home goes beyond that of Thayer. In Concord, the local chapter of the Teachers Association is behind Lilien and Flight, though the Mass Teachers Association called their chances of success "questionable," and failed to back the effort. But the community offered money, written letters of support, volunteered time, and provided "more legal advice than we could ever use!"
"If the town of Concord told me to do this," said Lilien, "I would do it. I have a contract with them, which they have never broken, and I would do it. But it's the state telling me, not the town." The group has set up a website, www.rebelteachers.com, though none readily take credit for the name.
Success, for the group, would mean grandfathering on all senior teachers and refunding recertification fees to those who have already paid them. Earlier in the spring, Eliot Lilien said he would take any offer for resolution that presented a way out with dignity. One that would allow he and the other teachers to stand as the "models of the truth" they hope to embody before their students. They are still waiting.
Response from the state
Asked for comment, Massachusetts Education Commissioner David Driscoll provided the following statement: "The law is clearpublic school educators in Massachusetts must renew their teaching certificates every five years to remain employed to teach public schools. As a condition for recertification, educators are required to participate in relevant and rigorous professional development activities in their fields of expertise.
"It is very reasonable that teachers fulfill their legal and professional obligations to renew their teaching certificates. Teachers who disregard this obligation are breaking the law. Their position is a poor reflection on thousands of their colleagues who take their responsibilities seriously, and their actions send the wrong message to students."
© 1999 The Carlisle Mosquito