07/19/2011 06:02 pm ET Updated Sep 18, 2011

Long Road Ahead In Firing Atlanta Teachers Targeted In Cheating Report

Atlanta educators charged with cheating on students' standardized tests received a letter from Erroll Davis, Atlanta's interim superintendent last week.

He told the 178 educators they had until Wednesday, July 20, to either resign or get fired.

"You either confessed to cheating or were otherwise implicated in wrongdoing," Davis wrote. "We give you the opportunity to resign your employment with APS prior to official notice of my intent to recommend your termination."

What the letter didn't note is that what could be Atlanta's largest-ever mass teacher termination is not as simple as Davis would make it seem -- even in a right-to-work state like Georgia, which can circumvent some of the labyrinthine policies implemented in states with compulsory teachers union membership.

Depending on the specifics of a case, the teacher firing process in Georgia can range from days to weeks to years. Costs mount as legal fees accrue. Atlanta has put the accused teachers on administrative leave, meaning the district will continue to pay their salaries as the termination processes unfold.

"Since Georgia is a right-to-work state, [the termination process is] probably about as streamlined as any in the nation," said Hayward Richardson, a professor of education at Georgia State University. But even so, the process can wear on, running officials thousands of dollars in legal fees and salaries paid to the teachers who face dismissal.

"This high volume is a rare instance for not only Atlanta but also school systems around the country," Richardson added.

Completing the Atlanta terminations could take a number of years, says Michael McGonigle, counsel for the Georgia Association of Educators.

"There's an unprecedented number of these cases coming out of the gate," McGonigle noted. "I'm not sure how they'll process them at this point. ... If they mess up [on legal grounds], and we can argue on appeal for reversal, we will do that. Or if the evidence isn't strong enough ... we would appeal that."

In Georgia, teachers can be fired for "incompetency, insubordination, willful neglect of duties, immorality, encouraging students to violate the law, failure to secure and maintain necessary educational training and any other good and sufficient cause," according to state law.

Still, McGonigle noted, "due process is there to slow things down, so you can really get all the facts in any case."

Two weeks ago, state investigators released a report detailing the "culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation" in Atlanta Public Schools that inspired the 178 implicated educators to allegedly cheat, mainly by erasing incorrect answers on student exams and replacing them with correct ones. Since then, the state has moved quickly to restructure some of its offices and remove those affiliated with the scandal. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a statement Monday that his office has been "looking at" the fraud.

The cheating scandal in Atlanta -- and others around the country -- sparked a vitriolic debate in the Washington Post over the role high-stakes testing plays in pressuring teachers to amend their students' answer sheets.

But the next steps for the Atlanta district -- terminating those 178 implicated teachers -- also touch on a broader national debate about the best way to fire teachers.

"I don't know whether it [the unfolding of the termination process in Atlanta] will affect the national debate or not," said Tim Daly, president of the New Teacher Project. "People have talked about more expeditious processes especially in misconduct, but because they're so rarely used, it doesn't get a lot of attention."

"People will pay attention to how it works here," he noted.

In January, the American Federation of Teachers presented guidance for streamlining the teacher termination process around the country. Several states, including Illinois, have recently passed laws that make it easier for districts to fire teachers. New York State is trying to amend its teacher termination process.

These efforts have largely stemmed from the perceived need to purge school systems of teachers deemed "ineffective." Revelations about the process's difficulty in districts like Los Angeles -- where, according to LA Weekly, school officials spent $3.5 million attempting to fire just seven teachers who were targeted for poor performance -- have only added fuel to arguments in favor of termination streamlining.

But in Atlanta, the case is different: The targeted teachers would be fired for alleged misconduct, not incompetence.

Several of the implicated Atlanta teachers have left the district since the investigation began. As of this writing, according to Atlanta Public Schools spokesperson Keith Bromery, one has chosen to resign and another retired since Davis mailed his letter Monday. That leaves the district with about 140 teachers to fire.

"We want it done as soon and as quickly as possible with the understanding that these individuals are entitled to due process," Bromery told The Huffington Post.

After Davis's deadline -- the close of business Wednesday -- the remaining educators will receive a charge letter, which will contain an accusation and a witness list. After that, if the teacher still does not resign, hearings will proceed after a 10-day waiting period, either in front of the school board or a three-person tribunal appointed by the board. The recommendation of the tribunal or hearing would be passed onto the school board, which would make the final decision at a monthly meeting.

The losing party has a right to appeal the decision to the Georgia Board of Education, a process that could take several months.

After that, unsatisfied losing parties can take their cases to court -- a long and costly step that McGonigle said he is willing to take on behalf of teachers. "That can take another year or so," he said. He estimated a case could cost about $10,000 for his group to bring to court.

McGonigle called the lengthy cheating report a "blunt instrument" that painted its results in "broad strokes." As an example of this alleged lack of nuance, he cited a case where the report claimed the cheating confession of a second-grade teacher who instructed students who completed a test too quickly to go back and check their work.

"That's a little disturbing, that something like that can slip through," he said. "They're inferring that telling kids to check their work is cheating, when that's the norm in classroom behavior."

While the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports some attorneys general are still weighing pressing criminal charges against teachers involved, Bromery said the termination process would be unaffected.

If they were fired, teachers could still work in different districts in Georgia -- but they would have have a note of termination in their records, which is why, according to Bromery, Davis gave implicated educators the option to resign.

But McGonigle said that teachers would be forced to explain the circumstances of their resignation on job interviews anyway. He has urged GAE members to not resign.

Andrew Lenoir contributed to this report.