Teachers Are Being Fined, Suspended for Quitting Before End of the School Year

In Missouri, educators who resign may have to pay $500 to $10,000 and won't be allowed to work until their contract expires. Other states do the same

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Suppose you take a job as a classroom teacher in September, and by February you realize it’s just not right for you, or maybe you received a better offer in a neighboring district.

So you give notice and move on, right?

If you’re fortunate, yes. If not, you could be faced with a suspended teaching license and a fine in the thousands of dollars for breach of contract.

Three cases heard recently by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education ended with recommendations to suspend the licenses of two teachers — one who resigned because of unspecified “family matters” and the other who quit because of low pay.

The third teacher, who testified she felt unsafe at her school, did not have her license suspended.

In Missouri, breach-of-contract fines are set at the district level and range from $500 to as high as $10,000.

“There is no teacher in the state of Missouri who would cost $10,000 to replace. That is ludicrous,” said Kyle Farmer, senior staff attorney for the Missouri State Teachers Association. “It is absolutely being used as a punishment.”

While it may be used as a punishment, its primary purpose seems to be as a deterrent. An educator with a suspended license is prevented from taking a teaching job elsewhere until the contract expires. The fine is designed to reimburse school districts for the cost of finding a replacement.

Breach-of-contract cases are rare, and most times school districts will accommodate a teacher who wants to leave. Forcing educators to stay at a job they no longer want can be counterproductive for schools and students.

Nevertheless, Missouri is far from the only state with breach-of-contract penalties written into state law.

A one-year license suspension appears to be the standard practice in many states, including Arizona, California, Mississippi, South Carolina and Vermont. Other places, like Florida, Georgia and Minnesota, allow for sanctions but don’t specify.

Some states provide for even harsher penalties. Idaho, Nevada and North Dakota can completely revoke a teacher’s license for breach of contract.

In all cases, lesser penalties may be applied due to mitigating factors. California’s teacher credential commission might instead issue a “private admonition” or a “public reproval.” 

Tennessee and Texas each offer a list of circumstances under which teachers can avoid serious penalties.

Tennessee will release from contracts those teachers who provide a certified statement by a physician that they are incapable of fulfilling their duties.

Texas acknowledges ill health of the teacher or a close family member, job relocation of a family member or a “significant change in the educator’s family needs.” Mitigating factors also include helping the district find a replacement and supplying lesson plans for said replacement after resignation.

How districts handle breach-of-contract cases varies widely according to their staffing concerns. When circumstances are good, districts and teachers tend to resolve midyear resignations amicably. But sometimes, districts will use the big stick to discourage departures.

As described by Education Week way back in 2000, license suspension ”appears to be a bit like a nuclear weapon: The threat posed is ominous, but there are many compelling reasons not to trigger it.”

District officials don’t want to be constantly searching for teachers midyear and on short notice, but they also want to avoid getting a reputation for forcing teachers to remain, which can make it tougher to recruit new ones.

As with most labor issues, reasonable attitudes on the part of both management and workers can smooth over midyear resignation problems. But when the situation can’t be resolved, teachers can end up without jobs, and students without teachers.

Mike Antonucci’s Union Report appears most Wednesdays; see the full archive.

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