Home | Links | Reaction | Supporting Documents | Email this page

Union publicist aside, facts on teacher tenure costs, problems are accurate

By Scott Reeder, sng@springnet.com
SPRINGFIELD – The Illinois Federation of Teachers wants you to believe that it is common for Illinois school districts to fire tenured teachers who don’t do their jobs well or pose a danger to students.

We wish that were the case.

Unfortunately, it isn’t.

Teaching is a tough, demanding profession that not everyone is cut out for. And there are some who simply shouldn’t be in the classroom.

For the past two years, the IFT’s publicist, David Comerford has been making erroneous claims and counterclaims following two investigations Small Newspaper Group conducted looking at teacher licensure and teacher tenure.

For example, Mr. Comerford questioned in a magazine article, a news release and an internet posting a statement in “The Hidden Costs of Tenure” that a school district could reasonably expect to spend $100,000 in a tenure teacher dismissal case. He contended it rarely costs more than $50,000 and added:

“The point I’m making is that Reeder blew the dollar figure way out of proportion to add even greater slant to his hit piece.” (Capitol Fax, Dec. 7, 2005)

In response, we filed Freedom of Information Act requests for every attorney billing paid by an Illinois school district over a five-year period in a tenure teacher dismissal case. The average came out at $219,000. (44 percent of those were still under appeal, so the ultimate cost will be considerably higher.)

We invited Mr. Comerford to come over to our Springfield Bureau to review these attorney billing documents. For some reason, he never took us up on the offer – or publicly corrected his earlier assertions.

His only comment is that school districts are paying lawyers too much. (The focus of the investigations are on how things are, not how we would like them to be.)

Now he’s making another flawed claim that somehow the investigation significantly understated the number of tenured teachers fired each year in Illinois.

Among the findings of the 2005 series “The Hidden Costs of Tenure” was that an average of seven tenured teachers are fired each year. How did we determine this? We read every tenure hearing officer ruling made over an 18-year-period.

As a practical matter, an Illinois school board can only recommend to a tenure hearing officer that a teacher be fired.

When a school board recommends the dismissal of a teacher, the teacher has two choices: go before a hearing officer and fight to keep the job or quit. In theory, they could forego a chance to remain employed, the possibility of a severance package and choose to deliberately go through life with the stigma of being fired by simply doing nothing. (But the investigation focused on realities, not legal theories or aberrations.)

The IFT even persuaded a weekly alternative newspaper in Springfield to write a story entitled “Counting the Wrong Thing” (The story was written by a member of the St. Louis school board whose campaign has received significant financial and political support from teacher unions.)

To lay the matter to rest, we again contacted 876 school districts, achieved a 99.9 percent response. (We are still waiting for East St. Louis’.) We asked if during the past five years they had a case where a tenured teacher facing possible dismissal deliberately chose to be fired rather than appeal or resign. We found that on average out of 98,000 tenured teachers in Illinois an average of one teacher (yes, one) is fired each year in the manner described above.

That would be a margin of error of about 1/100,000th. Or putting it another way, it would indicate an average of eight, not seven teachers are fired each year in Illinois.

Don’t just take our word for it. You can read and listen to the actual responses from school districts across the state at: www.hiddenviolations.com.

But let us not let squabbling obscure key findings of the investigations.

Here are some findings and their supporting documentation:

• 84 percent of Illinois school districts have never given a tenured teacher a bad job performance evaluation in the last decade. • Putting it another way, only 1 in 930 job performance evaluations of tenured teachers results in substandard evaluations. Of those receiving the low marks, 50 percent ultimately remain in the classroom.

How do we know this? In 2005, Small Newspaper Group filed Freedom of Information Act requests with all 876 Illinois school districts for evaluation data and achieved 100 percent compliance. District-by-district evaluation data can be viewed at: www.thehiddencostsoftenure.com.

• 94 percent of Illinois school districts have never asked a tenure hearing officer to fire a teacher during the past 18 years. • An average of two tenured teachers in the entire state are fired each year for poor performance.

How do we know this? Every tenure dismissal case brought before a tenure hearing officer over an 18-year period was read and tabulated. In addition, in March of this year, every school district in the state was contacted and provided data on all tenure dismissals over the past five years.

• Of the 50 states, only Virginia revokes or suspends smaller proportion of teaching certificates than Illinois. • Illinois is one of only seven states and by far the largest lacking investigators to follow up on allegations of educator misconduct in teacher certification cases.

How do we know this? Open records requests were filed with all 50 states for information on teacher license suspensions and revocations and the number of investigators on staff.

• Illinois physicians are 43 times more likely than the state's teachers to have their license suspended or revoked. Lawyers are 25 times more likely than teachers to have their license suspended or revoked.

How do we know this? Data on license suspensions and revocations was obtained from the Illinois State Board of Education, the Illinois Supreme Court and the Illinois Department of Professional and Financial Regulation. A ratio of disciplinary actions to the number of active members within the profession was created.

• None of the tenured teachers fired in the last decade subsequently lost their teaching certificate. Certification officials often are not notified when a school district disciplines an educator.

• The Department of Children and Family Services has found 323 cases providing credible evidence of abuse by educators, but none have had their licenses suspended or revoked.

How do we know this? By cross referencing information from the Department of Children and Family Services, tenure hearing officer rulings and a master list of teaching certificate suspensions and revocations provided by the Illinois State Board of Education.

Small Newspaper Group vigorously stands by their accuracy and fairness of all quotes used in both series.

Quotes used in the series were based on audio recordings, meticulous notes and emailed statements. At times when quotes were ambiguous, sources were re-contacted for further clarification.

Mr. Comerford claims Illinois State Police Investigator Dennis Kuba was misquoted in the series. It seems an odd point considering he doesn’t claim he was misquoted.

Perhaps Mr. Comerford is a bit touchy because Kuba called his assertion that children frequently lie about being sexually abused by their teachers ridiculous.

Kuba’s exact words can listened to at: www.hiddenviolations.com.

Mr. Comerford absolutely has the right to advocate on behalf of the union members who pay his salary. But the most successful media relations professionals we’ve known understand their own organizations are not perfect. Instead of arguing with reporters about the embarrassing facts, they often argue internally for reforms to improve their organizations.

Time after time, the investigations found cases of sex offenders and other criminals who had slipped through the cracks and become teachers in Illinois. It is a real problem that not only endangers children but casts the entire profession in a bad light.

For example:

• Michael Buehler was certified to teach in Illinois and hired as an elementary school principal in Warsaw School District in Hancock County despite having his name on a national database of educators who have lost their teaching credentials.

He worked there as a principal for about seven years. About six months after the school district promoted him to superintendent, Mr. Buehler's past came to light and he was fired. Mr. Buehler had surrendered his Wisconsin teaching credentials in 1993 after a $770,000 lawsuit settlement with a former student who alleged that Mr. Buehler had impregnated her three times and engaged 400 to 500 acts of sexual intercourse beginning when she was 13.

• When Chassappasi Rain applied for a job with Chicago Public Schools in 1990, he put on his application that he had shot two people in 1978. The state licensed him and the school district hired him despite his conviction for assault with intent to do bodily harm. Mr. Rain was fired 12 years later, after he wrote a letter to a female teacher.

A tenure hearing officer described the letter as 'vicious, graphic, obscene and threatening.' (The letter itself can be viewed at www.hiddenviolations.com.) Despite being fired by Chicago Public Schools and having a felony record, Mr. Rain continues to be certified to teach in Illinois and is now employed by Dolton School District, where he has taught seventh-grade for the past four years.

• John E. Wheatley was convicted of sexual battery in 1989, according to Cook County records. This conviction didn't prevent him from subsequently being hired by four other Illinois school districts.

Wheatley resigned from Chicago Public Schools recently after eight years of service there. But he still is licensed to teach in Illinois. Media accounts at the time of his conviction said he took a 16-year-old Thornwood High School girl, for whom he was a counselor, to a hotel room.

• In 1977, George Tolbert entered a dorm room at Western Illinois University, pushed back the covers of a slumbering 12-year-old boy and performed an oral sex act.

Mr. Tolbert pleaded guilty to indecent liberties with a child and burglary in that 1977 case and received probation. In an unrelated 1978 case, he victimized another child and again was convicted of indecent liberties. He was sentenced to four years in prison. Even with three Illinois felony convictions and a stint in prison, Mr. Tolbert was able to obtain an Illinois teaching certificate.

In 1993, he was certified to be a school guidance counselor. In 2003, he received an elementary school teaching certificate. He worked in Chicago Public Schools as a guidance counselor and a teacher for 11 years. The school district's response to learning it had a twice-convicted child molester in its ranks? He was allowed to resign in 2004.

State officials were not informed of his convictions, and his teaching certificate remained valid until it expired 2007.

Sadly, these are not the worst cases the investigations have uncovered. We can point to many more examples.

Most teachers do wonderful work and deserve our respect and to be well compensated for their endeavors.

Union officials have contended that our investigations have exaggerated the problem and our vigorously fighting legislation to better screen teachers for criminal convictions.

To that we would simply ask: What is an acceptable number of criminals to be teaching our children?