Baltimore County teachers are pushing for their school system to rescind a new rule limiting their ability to transfer to other schools within the district.
As part of contract negotiations, the teachers union is challenging a district rule, first implemented this school year, that a teacher who meets the complex definition of "highly qualified" under the federal No Child Left Behind Act cannot transfer to another school unless there is a "highly qualified" replacement.
School district officials say the change is necessary to comply with the federal law requiring all classrooms to have highly qualified teachers by the end of the 2005-2006 school year. Superintendent Joe A. Hairston has said in past interviews that the change was designed to improve the performance of the county's lowest-scoring schools, which disproportionately serve poor and minority children.
"A good, stable staff is sound educationally," school system spokesman Charles A. Herndon said last week. "What this is doing is stabilizing the learning environment for children."
But as a result, teachers sometimes "feel like they're being held hostage," said Cheryl Bost, president of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County, which represents the district's 8,000 teachers.
Union negotiations won't officially begin until after Thanksgiving weekend, but talks on the transfer issue are under way, Bost said. The union contract includes the right to seek a transfer after two years.
Herndon could not provide the number of teachers who requested transfers for the current year or the number of transfers granted. He said school district officials would not comment further.
Union officials say the teacher-transfer issue is more significant in Baltimore County than in many neighboring school districts because of the county's size and diversity. Baltimore County has some of the highest-performing schools in Maryland, but it also has several schools performing below state averages.
In Anne Arundel County, teachers union President Sheila Finlayson said the district has dealt with the transfer issue by allowing teachers to apply for open positions before new hires, while offering incentive pay to encourage teachers to stay in schools that have not seen adequate improvement in their test scores.
In Baltimore County, the district has identified 40 of its 162 schools - 21 elementary, nine middle and 10 high schools - as "priority schools" in large part because of low test scores. Forty-eight of its elementary and middle schools are Title 1 schools, which receive extra federal funds because they serve a large number of children from low-income families.
Many of the priority schools are also Title 1 schools. And Title 1 schools that do not have highly qualified teachers in all core subject areas by next school year run the risk of losing federal funds.
Already, Title 1 schools must notify parents when their child's teacher is not highly qualified.
This year, Baltimore County did not allow highly qualified teachers to transfer out of Title 1 and priority schools without highly qualified replacements. It also set limits on the number of teachers who could transfer to high-performing schools.
But not every teacher is suited for the challenges of teaching at a Title 1 or a priority school, Bost said, and children need teachers who want to be with them.
She said the union is proposing that the district explore ideas for making teachers want to go to low-performing schools and stay there.
"We've got to think of some creative ways to make these schools more attractive," said Bost, who taught at a successful Title 1 school, Mars Estates Elementary, before becoming teachers union president.
It is key, she said, for a school to have a strong principal who lets staff share in the decision-making process.
In addition, the district must make decisions on staffing - such as whether to give a school an extra reading teacher - based on individual school needs, Bost said.
To attract teachers to its low-performing schools, the school district has started to offer signing bonuses of up to $3,500. Bost said these monetary incentives should be offered to everyone on a school's staff, not just new hires.
Sun staff writer Liz F. Kay contributed to this article.