By Reeder, Scott
Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. The IRE Journal , Vol. 31, No. 1
While in college I was asked to ponder the question, which is worse, a sin of omission or commission?
At age 42,1 still don't know the answer.
But after 20 years of reporting I know which is harder to investigate.
It is difficult to quantify when government ignores its responsibilities.
A case in point is an investigation I recently completed looking at how the state of Illinois fails to address issues of teacher misconduct.
First, I filed an Illinois Freedom of Information Act request with the Illinois State Board of Education asking for the names and offenses of every Illinois teacher whose teaching certificate was suspended or revoked during the last decade.
The list seemed short. For example, in 2006 only six teachers had actions taken against their licenses. At first blush it appeared either that Illinois had really well-behaved teachers or many cases of educator misconduct that were falling through the cracks.
But how does one quantify the absence of action?
The first approach I took was to see how Illinois compared to other states.
So I filed FOI requests with every state department of education asking for lists of teachers who had their licenses suspended or revoked. It was a continuous battle to get states to turn over this information.
But after six months of negotiating with state attorneys general, arguing with countless flaks and badgering state education officials, I received information for every state. (A Maine official turned over data for two years but then discovered state law prohibited its release and refused to turn over four additional years requested.)
I built Excel spreadsheets for individual states to examine disciplinary actions and used the results to create a national spreadsheet. I then adjusted for population differences by creating ratios of disciplinary actions per licensed educator in each state.
The results were startling.
Illinois ranked 49th in the nation in its rate of disciplining teachers. To put this in perspective, California and Georgia educators were 25 times more likely to have their licenses suspended or revoked than their counterparts in Illinois.
Only Virginia was less aggressive in dealing with errant educators.
The next step was to find examples of cases that had fallen through the cracks.
The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) turned over data on substantiated sexual and physical abuse complaints against educators over the last eight years. DCFS had found 323 cases containing credible evidence of abuse by school personnel.
By cross-referencing this data with the list of Illinois educators who had lost their teaching certificates, I was able to determine that none of these abusers had their teaching licenses suspended or revoked.
In a prior investigation I conducted two years ago, I looked at teacher tenure in Illinois. During that investigation I built a database of every tenured teacher fired over the last 18 years.
In Illinois, it is nearly impossible to fire a tenured teacher. In fact, on average only seven teachers a year are fired in the entire state, and school districts spend an average of $219,000 in attorney fees alone to litigate each of these cases.
Perhaps it goes without saying that those tenured teachers who lose their jobs are among the worst in the profession. By comparing this list of educators who had lost their jobs to the list of educators who had lost their licenses, I found that none of the tenured teachers fired in the last decade also lost their teaching certificate. And significant numbers had been hired by other school districts.
So why isn't the Illinois Teacher Certification Board doing more?
During the course of my investigation I found:
* No investigators are employed by the Illinois State Board of Education, so reports of teacher misconduct are often not investigated or acted upon. …