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An editorial: Time to quit hiding costs of tenure

Small Newspaper Group

Twenty years after the Illinois Legislature tried to bring greater accountability into the classroom by making it easier to fire bad teachers, Scott Reeder of The Small Newspaper Group Springfield bureau launched an investigation to determine the effectiveness of those reforms.

The results of the investigation, one of the largest in the company’s history, are startling.

Despite denials from the state’s two major teacher unions, the data indicates that tenure has evolved into near total job protection that mocks the goal of accountability. The greatest abuses of this system are often in the poorest school districts.

As part of this six-month investigation, Reeder:

-- Filed about 1,500 Freedom of Information Act requests with various governmental entities.

-- Achieved a 100 percent response rate when seeking data from each of Illinois’ 876 school districts.

-- Reviewed every case of a tenured educator facing dismissal during the past 18 years.

-- Conducted one of the largest media document reviews in the history of Cook County courts, according to Linda Cuellar a spokeswoman for the circuit clerk.

-- Interviewed hundreds of educators, union officials and experts.

What to do now

Students suffer when the teacher is incompetent. The result is a disaster when the jobs of tomorrow require higher skills than ever.

Good teachers suffer as they watch helplessly as the standards of their profession are pulled down. They are unfairly tarnished with the brush of mediocrity. To add insult to injury, terrible teachers are paid $50,000 or more to go away, while the best teachers rarely get a bonus or premium pay based on merit. We should have the courage to honor and reward the best teachers. Their contributions are beyond measure, but we must try anyway.

The taxpayers suffer by paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees in cases to produce verdicts that defy common sense.

For everybody’s sake, Illinois needs to bring real accountability to the system.

A few suggestions:

-- It shouldn’t take a reporter six months to get this kind of information. It should be collected by the state and offered to the public as an accountability report card each year.

-- Illinois should follow Iowa’s lead in outlawing secret deals with bad teachers. Sunlight is a great disinfectant.

-- Long term teachers who are incompetent should receive severance pay reflecting their seniority, along with professional outplacement help. This is better than keeping them in the system, where the damage they cause to students lasts for years after the student has left that classroom.

-- Some teachers have students who come badly prepared and motivated. What counts is not the starting point, but the progress made during the year. That can be measured and rewarded.

-- Voucher systems, allowing students to choose among public schools, would install a spirit of healthy competition that would wake up the school boards.

-- But the greatest reform would be a grand trade. Financing schools with property taxes, started when only the rich owned real estate, is wrong, resulting in huge disparities among school districts in the state. Illinois should replace the property tax with an equivalent income tax, in return for real accountability for performance. The system we have is a sham and a disgrace..

Now that the costs of tenure are no longer hidden, we can do no less.