SPRINGFIELD — It's next to impossible for school teachers in Illinois to lose their jobs if they have tenure, according to a newspaper group's examination of state records since Illinois lawmakers introduced greater accountability guidelines for teachers 18 years ago.
Strong teachers unions and high costs related to legal appeals often scare many school districts from getting rid of even the worst tenured teachers, according to findings from a six-month investigation by the Illinois-based Small Newspaper Group, which published the first installment of a six-part series on Sunday.
The investigation found only 7 percent of the state's 876 school systems have attempted to fire a tenured teacher since the mid-1980s, when Illinois passed a landmark school-reform act designed to promote teacher accountability. Of those attempts, 62 percent of districts were successful in terminating the tenured educator.
Of the more than 95,000 tenured teachers employed in the state, an average of only two a year are fired for poor job performance, the investigation found. Another five a year on average are dismissed for misconduct.
Many of the state's larger school districts have not fired a tenured teacher over the 18-year span. Those districts include Springfield, Peoria, Kankakee, Bloomington, Carbondale, Plainfield, Moline, Rock Island and Evanston.
During the six-month investigation, the newspaper group filed some 1,500 Freedom of Information Act requests with every state school district to obtain documents regarding disciplinary action against tenured teachers.
Clyde Senters, superintendent of Cicero Elementary School in suburban Chicago, said tenure shields underperforming teachers from accountability.
"When I hire talented new college graduates to teach, I tell them, 'You are going to meet a lot of people in this profession who just shouldn't be in it. But there is not a lot that can be done to hold them accountable because of tenure," Senters said.
Union leaders disputed the suggestion that tenure protects poor teachers.
Jim Dougherty, president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, said so few teachers are fired because so few need to be. Ken Swanson, president of the Illinois Education Association, argued that it is an "urban legend" that tenured teachers in the state can't be fired.
Under the reform law, every school district except Chicago must recommend a tenured teacher's dismissal to an arbitrator, who then decides the educator's fate. Arbitrators have ruled in 35 percent of cases over the years that the teacher should not be fired, according to the investigation.
Districts seem to avoid pursuing termination of tenured teachers due to the high cost and uncertain outcome of the legal process, according to the investigation.
The Geneseo school district in northwest Illinois has spent more than $400,000 in attorney fees over five years fighting appeals stemming from the firing of one tenured teacher, the newspaper group reported.
In Illinois, Small Newspaper Group publishes The Daily Journal, of Kankakee; The Dispatch, of Moline; The Rock Island Argus; and The Times, of Ottawa and Streator. It also publishes newspapers, magazines and Web sites in California, Indiana, Iowa and Minnesota.
For more information about the Small Newspaper Group's investigation, including related figures and official documents, go to http://www.thehiddencostsoftenure.com.
On the Net:
Small Newspaper Group: http://www.sngnews.com