How about a tiny newspaper chain?
The Small Newspaper Group that runs papers in the Quad Cities, Kankakee and Ottawa financed this massive investigation. Their bureau chief, Scott Reeder, led the effort.
The results are here: www.TheHiddenCostOfTenure.com
I'll talk about them in a minute (and they are definitely worth a long read), but I wanted to note how appropriate this report is in terms of the debate on this blog on MoveOn.org (and some of MoveOn's 3.3 million members) protesting the Tribune Company's recent decision to cut back staff at its papers around the country.
Because of staff cuts at a profitable enterprise, we will all suffer from fewer reports like the excellent one that the Small Newspaper Group produced on teacher tenure.
The Tribune editorial board weighed in on the subject with their editorial here calling for an abolition of tenure, but it would be nice if a few of the bigwigs at the Trib's corporate office decided to invest more resources into newspaper staff.
By the way, when MoveOn.org people confronted the Trib's CEO at a New York City media conference (press release here, Trib story here), Mr. Fitzsimmons decided not to engage in that discussion.
The Small Newspaper Group had a few little suggestions and one big one.
The small suggestions include:
-- 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.
These all seem exceptionally reasonable to me and my hope is that the General Assembly and local school districts embrace the ideas. If I had to guess, I'd guess the first idea that forces the State Board of Education to do more work at collecting data is the one most likely to pass in 2006.
But the editorial closes with this idea:
-- 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
This is the slowly simmering pot of a big idea that will hopefully be served up in 2007.
Up to now, the debate on education has turned on raising the 3% state income tax to 5% (raising about three billion), putting half the money into poorer schools and the other half into richer property taxpayers in the form of lower property taxes.
I've always found that to be an awkward trade.
Better, in my view, to trade accountability and performance for the extra money. Forget lowering property taxes altogether. Just spend the money on better schools. I believe that we're more likely to convince the reluctant taxpayer to pay an extra two percent of their income for education if s/he believes that the money will actually make a difference in the lives of children, and by extension, the state. That's a more compelling pitch than putting more money into the same school system (with some serious flaws), but with, perhaps, a smaller local property tax bill in exchange for a higher state income tax.
Scott Reeder and the owners of the Small Newspaper Group have done Illinois students a great public service in documenting some of the major flaws of our schools. Now we have the chance to use this knowledge -- produced by a civic-minded for-profit company -- to make life better. I hope this becomes a central part of the education funding debate.