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Teachers get fired, but don't leave classroom

By Scott Reeder, Small Newspaper Group
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Photo: Photo Illustration by Todd Mizener/Nathan Williams
Small Newspaper Group filed open records requests with 50 state education departments and built a national database of revocations and suspensions of teacher licenses during its "Hidden Violations" investigation.
SPRINGFIELD -- Downers Grove School District spent $134,799 in legal fees alone to fire Stephen Wright, a tenured teacher.

His conduct was considered so bad, that this is what tenure hearing officer Julius Menacker had to say in 2002 when he upheld Wright's firing:

``A teacher should not have to be warned against improper touching of female students. Asking students for synonyms for oral sex, asking them why semen tastes salty and the other confirmed improprieties of Wright are clearly beyond common standards of decency and professional behavior for high school teachers.''

But if you think that ended Stephen Wright's educational career, think again.

Within a year he was back teaching in another Illinois classroom. After all, he lost his job, but not his teaching certificate.

In the prequel to the current investigation, Small Newspaper Group filed 1,500 Freedom of Information requests with almost 900 governmental entities and achieved 100 percent compliance. That investigation known as ``The Hidden Costs of Tenure,'' found:

* Out of 95,000 tenured teachers in Illinois an average of seven are fired each year, two for poor performance and five for misconduct.

* Eighty-four percent of Illinois' school districts have never given any tenured teacher a bad job evaluation during an 11-year period.

* Over a five-year period school districts that retained attorneys and attempted to fire a tenured teacher spent an average $219,000 per case in legal fees alone.

``When a school board decides to invest the staff time and money into firing a tenured teacher, we are usually talking about someone pretty bad at their job. The cases that come before a tenure hearing officer are almost always for those who are the worst in the profession,'' said Larry Janes, a former school superintendent and a consultant to the Illinois Principals' Association.

Even so, school boards lose one-third of the cases heard by tenure hearing officers. But even if a hearing officer upholds the firing of teacher, they are free to seek employment in another school district.

In fact, none of the tenured teachers fired in the last decade have had subsequent action taken to revoke or suspend their teaching certificates.

That is not the way it works in some other states. For example, in Pennsylvania and New York, after a tenured teacher is fired the teacher licensing board automatically considers whether a teaching certificate should also be revoked.

After reviewing data collected by Small Newspaper Group, Illinois State School Superintendent Christopher Koch, who took the helm of the state board of education earlier this year, says it is time for the state to reform how it handles the revocation and suspension of teaching certificates.

The backlog of potential revocations or suspensions doesn’t stop with just a list of about 70 fired tenured teachers.

In addition to the files of about 70 tenured teachers who have been fired, a pile of other cases, some dating back more than 10 years, need to be reviewed to determine whether teaching certificates should be suspended or revoked, Matt Vanover a spokesman for Illinois State Board of Education said after receiving repeated open records requests from Small Newspaper Group regarding the size of the backlog.

But the backlog of potential cases doesn't end there.

The Department of Children and Family Services provided the newspaper group with data on abuse complaints filed against licensed educators during the last eight years.

The child protection agency has investigated 3,871 complaints against educators and it has found that in 323 cases credible evidence of abuse was found.

Some of these cases stemmed from relatively minor incidents, while others were more serious. But a list of teacher certificate revocations and suspension obtained from the Illinois State Board of Education indicated that during the past eight years the certification board has not once suspended or revoked any teaching certificate based solely on DCFS finding.

During the past six years, 1 in 2,500 Illinois educators have lost their teaching credentials through suspension, revocation or surrender. By comparison, during the same period 1 in 57 doctors practicing in Illinois lost their medical licenses and 1 in 97 Illinois attorneys lost their law licenses.

``Either Illinois teachers are 43 times better behaved than doctors or they are being held to a considerably lower professional standard than other professions,'' said Jeff Mays, executive director of the Illinois Business Roundtable and an advocate for educator accountability standards. ``Just like doctors and lawyers, teachers are members of an important and demanding profession. It's time that they be held to the same professional standards.''