Public schools

LA School District Wants to Destroy the World's Greatest Teacher Over Harmless Joke

Public schools punish good educators

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Shakespeare
Dreamstime

Why was Rafe Esquith—a celebrated Los Angeles teacher with numerous achievements—suspended from class and forced to cancel his annual Shakespeare production? I previously reported that his alleged infraction was reading a colorful passage from Mark Twain, but according to new details in this Washington Post story, it's actually a harmless, wholly inoffensive joke that got him in trouble.

Esquith teaches at Hobart Boulevard elementary in LA. Most of his students are low-income Korean and Hispanic kids. His numerous extracurricular activities—including field trips and Shakespeare productions—are largely funded through private donations from benefactors attracted to his excellent work. While reading a passage from Huckleberry Finn in which "the king came prancing out on all fours, naked," Esquith remarked that if he couldn't raise additional funds for his annual production, he supposed "the class would have to similarly perform naked."

WaPost's Jay Mathews puts his comment in context:

Esquith was joking. He does that a lot, as anyone who knows him has long been aware of. The school district has provided no significant funds for the annual play and Esquith's many field trips and other projects, but his work has attracted many wealthy and influential supporters, so he was not expressing a real worry. The Shakespearean plays are very low-budget, since they are done in his small classroom with the audience on risers and the many musical instruments mostly donated.

But a teacher who was in the room took him seriously, reported this to the principal and the principal reported it to the district. From there on, [Esquith's attorney Ben] Meiselas said, the district has been conducting an open-ended investigation with no apparent charges and no due process for Esquith.  No child has complained. No parent has complained. The teacher who made the first report emailed him in April to say "I just want you to know that I am here for you . . . and I wish you the best resolution possible!"

Esquith's lawyers have told the district to publicly apologize and let him return to work or be sued. Meiselas said district officials pulled some of Esquith's students out of class and questioned them intensely about what Esquith had said and anything he might have done to them, without first seeking the permission of their parents. Meiselas said the students were extremely upset, as were the parents.

And that's it. One of the most celebrated public school teachers in the country has been driven out of his classroom, his charitable work halted, because no one can appreciate a joke—a completely appropriate joke.

Mathews continues:

There are no suggestions that he has harmed any children. But as many of the great teachers I have written about over the years have told me, if you work hard and show administrators how much better our schools could be if they took their responsibilities seriously, you are going to become a target for abuse.

I have witnessed many outrages by school districts, but this may be the worst yet.

This is the public school system: a confluence of bad incentives that permits lazy, ineffective teachers to keep drawing checks year after year while thwarting successful and innovative teachers at every turn. Esquith will likely be allowed to continue teaching when classes resume next fall, but this disruption is a terrible shame for his students.

In a sane world, LA schools would stifle the urge to splurge on unnecessary extravagances, and instead concentrate on providing basic instruction while rewarding the good apples.