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Sheehan questions Gist decision on hiring of uncertified teachers

January 11, 2011

Photo Courtesy RI General Assembly Senator James Sheehan has been an outspoken critic of the hiring of uncertified teachers at Democracy Prep in Cumberland.

PROVIDENCE– If good teachers are the most important element to education, the Department of Education shouldn't allow uncertified individuals to teach at Democracy Prep school in Cumberland, says Sen. James C. Sheehan.

"It's a contradiction to say that qualified teachers are critical to each child's education, but then allow exceptions at one school. The students at Democracy Prep are just as deserving of certified teachers as other students around the state. To allow a group of uncertified teachers to teach at that school is to put the education of the students there at risk," said Senator Sheehan, a Democrat who represents District 36 in North Kingstown and Narragansett.

"If we truly believe qualified teachers are important, the state is putting the students at Democracy Prep at an educational disadvantage by allowing them to be taught by uncertified teachers," he said, "and the Education Commissioner's actions are a contradiction of her own terms and stated educational goals."

In a letter sent earlier this month, Senator Sheehan sought information from Education Commissioner Deborah A. Gist regarding the law Democracy Prep is violating by hiring five uncertified teachers in the current school year, and why the school has not been sanctioned for those violations.

Commissioner Gist responded with a letter saying it was determined by her department that issuing emergency certification to those teachers would be in the best interest of the students because they would have already forged relationships with those teachers by this point in the year. Gist said that the state has not in the past taken action against charter schools under the law banning uncertified teachers at public schools, but as a result of the situation at Democracy Prep, the department is notifying all districts that it will take action in the future.

Senator Sheehan said that although he's glad the hiring of uncertified teachers at charter schools will be prevented in the future, the lack of enforcement this year is unfair to the students at Democracy Prep, both now and possibly in the coming years if the school district exercises its right under the law to renew the emergency certification at the end of the year.

"For the sake of students' education, Democracy Prep shouldn't be given a pass on hiring uncertified teachers. They may be wonderful educators, but without certification, there's no way for the state to ensure that, and the state has that obligation," said Senator Sheehan. "There was never any emergency to justify emergency certification, as Commissioner Gist asserted. The state is creating a potential disaster by setting a precedent of abusing emergency certification as a means to make up for the unlawful failure of this school to hire people who are qualified to teach Rhode Island students."

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