It’s a refrain that could be whispered by parents in PTA meetings or muttered in faculty lounges by those aggravated with a colleague: “They can’t fire him; he’s got tenure.”
But is that really the case?
I spent six months trying to find out.
During an interview early in the investigation, one Illinois teacher union leader asserted that under-performing teachers are routinely fired even if they have tenure. He added that if I thought otherwise, I should come up with the supporting data.
It was one of those put-up or shut-up moments each of us occasionally face in journalism.
The union leader probably realized such a database didn’t exist, but he probably didn’t anticipate his challenge would spark a massive investigation that would result in more than 1,500 state FOIA requests being filed with nearly 900 agencies.
After achieving 100 percent compliance from all governmental entities contacted, it was obvious that something was seriously amiss in Illinois’ teacher accountability system.
The investigation 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 are dismissed for issues of misconduct, often involving sexual or physical abuse of children.
* 83 percent of Illinois school districts have not given any tenured educator an “unsatisfactory” job evaluation in the past decade.
* Only one of every 930 job-performance evaluations of tenured teachers results in an unsatisfactory rating. Only 50 percent of those receiving bad ratings actually leave the profession.
The documents sought by my public records requests were among the most sensitive and closely guarded by school districts: teacher job-performance evaluations, confidential employment termination settlement agreements, specific details of dismissal cases ranging from names of sexually assaulted students to specifics of a teacher’s alleged offenses.
Despite this, by using different reporting strategies, I was able to achieve 100 percent compliance from the governmental entities contacted.
Interestingly enough, even though the federal FOIA was signed into law 40 years ago and most state FOIAs have been on the books for decades, many public officials remain ignorant of the measures or what they need to do to comply.
In fact, The Associated Press and 14 Illinois newspapers conducted a FOIA audit in 1999 of various governmental entities throughout the United States and were able to achieve compliance in only one-third of the cases.
But what I found most remarkable during my investigation was how seldom the FOIA is used.
Time after time, school officials would say this was the first FOIA request they had received in their careers. Some were perplexed by the FOIA letters themselves, having never seen one.
This doesn’t speak well for how aggressively some in our profession cover their beats.
Filing FOIA requests should be a part of the routine for any reporter who covers public affairs.
Too often reporters fail to analyze information for themselves and instead rely on sound bites from a few sources.
Effective investigative reporting requires patience and a lot of perseverance. During the course of the six-month Hidden Costs of Tenure investigation, I:
* Conducted one of the largest document searches in the history of Cook County (Chicago) courts.
* Read every Illinois tenure teacher dismissal case finding filed during the past 18 years.
* Policed state FOIA requests for teacher evaluation information from each of Illinois’ 876 school districts until 100 percent compliance was achieved.
A common misconception among journalists is that stories built from FOIA requests are always overly governmental and lacking in human elements.
In my investigation I found that extensive FOIA use produced compelling human dramas, including an interview with a woman who was impregnated by her assistant principal when she was 14. The results stemmed from a FOIA request filed with the State Board of Education for arbitration records, which revealed her plight. (The man kept his job.)
As the statehouse bureau chief, I divide time between editing and reporting responsibilities.
I waited until the legislative session was complete before I began working on this project. Stephanie Sievers, another reporter who works in my bureau, shouldered the bulk of daily reporting I would ordinarily be doing. But I continued my editing responsibilities.
So what is my secret to managing a project of this magnitude? Working really long hours.
I worked straight through a number weekends; I didn’t take any vacation time, and I found myself inputting data on a laptop computer in a hospital maternity ward as my wife and newborn daughter slept nearby.
Scott Reeder has received national recognition for his series. The awards include:
* The $10,000 prize for the Clark Mollenhoff Award for Excellence in Investigative Reporting.
* Designation as an IRE Medal winner for Investigative Reporters and Editors’ Freedom of Information Award.
* Second place in Best Investigative or In-Depth Story category in the National Newspaper Association’s Better Newspaper Contest.
* Finalist for the Selden Ring Investigative Reporting Award.
* Citations of merit from the Education Writers Association and the Casey Medals for Meritorious Journalism competitions.
Tagged under: FOI