Reeder, Scott, Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. The IRE Journal
All 1,500 FOI requests fulfilled in investigation of tenure system
"They can't fire him - he's got tenure."
How many times has that been whispered among parents at a PTA meeting or by educators aggravated by a colleague's shortcomings?
But is it true?
That's what I spent six months investigating as the Illinois statehouse reporter in Springfield for a chain of medium-sized newspapers owned by the Small family. As part of that investigation, I would file 1,500 Freedom of Information Act requests, create two databases, search campaign finance records and interview those affected by the tenure system and its flaws.
In 1985, the Illinois Legislature passed a major education reform package designed to bring greater accountability into the classroom and make it easier to fire incompetent teachers.
Among other things, the intent of the legislation was to mandate that all teachers be routinely evaluated, streamline the dismissal process for incompetent teachers and create a formal remediation system to improve underperforming instructors.
At the time, these measures were heralded in the press as landmarks. But reporters have seldom revisited these "reforms" after their passage.
When I took a closer look, I found:
* Of an estimated 95,500 tenured educators employed in Illinois, an average of only seven have their dismissals approved each year by a state hearing officer.
* Of those seven, only two on average are fired for poor performance. The remainder is dismissed for issues of misconduct, often involving sexual or physical abuse of children.
* Only one of every 930 job-performance evaluations of tenured teachers results in an unsatisfactory rating. And only 50 percent of those receiving bad ratings actually leave the profession.
Under Illinois law, only Chicago Public Schools has the authority to overrule a hearing officer and fire a teacher. For the state's remaining 875 school districts, school boards can only recommend to an arbitrator that a teacher be dismissed. I found that in the past 18 years, 94 percent of Illinois school districts have never even attempted to fire anyone with tenure. Further, in the past decade, 84 percent of Illinois school districts have never rated a tenured teacher as unsatisfactory.
Those numbers were stunning. But they were difficult to obtain because the state does not track evaluation data or keep track of the number of tenured teachers facing dismissal.
To get the data I filed about 1,500 FOIA requests with all 876 Illinois school districts and the Illinois State Board of Education. Through lots of persistence, I was able to achieve a 100 percent response rate from every governmental entity contacted.
But before sending out my first batch of FOIAs, I had to devise a strategy to yield the information I needed. (Illinois has a relatively weak public records law that excludes most personnel documents from public view. And, teacher job performance evaluations are sealed away in personnel files.)
I sat down with a veteran education labor lawyer who walked me through the evaluation and dismissal process. We looked for a place where the evaluation process left a footprint in the public domain.
The Illinois school code mandates whenever a tenured teacher receives an unsatisfactory evaluation, a formal remediation period must follow. And, since a teacher is rarely placed into formal remediation without a school board vote because firing a tenured staff member is an expensive endeavor, I filed public records requests for all school board meeting minutes in which a teacher was placed into remediation.
In the handful of school districts that do not involve school boards in the process, I was able to obtain the information by filing requests for other documents or simply pestering school superintendents and personnel directors to provide the data. …