Chicago Teacher Paper Under Fire

The Chicago School Board has filed a $1 million suit against a local education newspaper, Substance, which printed in full several tests in the district’s end-of- semester exams.

Substance editor George Schmidt has been reassigned to central office and is under threat of being fired. Schmidt, who has been teaching in the district since 1969, was an English teacher and security coordinator at Bowen High School.

In its January-February issue, Substance printed the complete U.S. History, Algebra, World Studies, and English I exams, known as the Chicago Academic Standards Examinations (CASE). The CASE exams are a cornerstone in the district’s reform agenda.

Chicago Schools Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas called the exams’ publication “sabotage.” The Chicago board immediately filed suit, saying it could cost $1 million to prepare new exams, and that Substance’s printing of the ex- ams violated federal and state copyright laws. Board attorney Marilyn Johnson admitted, however, that the board applied for copyright only after Substance began publishing the exams, according to the Jan. 27 Chicago Sun-Times.

The Chicago board submitted a “Memorandum of Law” to federal court on Jan. 26, calling for all copies of the Substance issue to be seized, according to Schmidt. “The newspaper and other materials al- ready disseminated must be confiscated, even if it takes the U.S. Marshals going to every Chicago Public School teacher’s home,” the memorandum argued. “The unauthorized copies must be destroyed.” (Chicago district officials could not be reached for comment.)

Federal Judge Charles Norgle granted a temporary restraining order and writ of seizure, but voided the restraining order three days later on the grounds that the damage to the tests had already been done. No homes were ever entered by legal authorities.

Schmidt refused to say how he got copies of the exam. In Substance, he wrote that the exams were being published “because the time has come to debate the educational integrity of the claims of the Vallas administration. We have requested all of the material pertain- ing to the CASE examinations. Vallas & Co. specialize in holding back information, despite law to the contrary. So we’re publishing public information here … .”

Schmidt was quoted in the Jan. 27 Chicago Tribune as saying that the ex- ams “have neither validity nor reliability. [They] … should be subject to public debate.”

The Chicago Tribune joined in the call for Schmidt’s firing, complaining, “Now all the questions Schmidt published must be scrapped. What a waste!” The paper then went on to note, however, that Judge Norgle was wrong to grant the temporary restraining order because Schmidt’s “First Amendment rights as a publisher ought not be infringed.”

The CASE exams are to be given twice a year to 9th and 10th graders, and may account for as much as 25% of a student’s semester grade. This year’s CASE exams were given as part of a pilot test in mid-January, before being published by Substance.

The Chicago board argues that it now cannot re-use the tests. But as Jay Rehak, a teacher at Whitney Young High School wrote in a letter to the educational reform magazine Catalyst,“The idea that somehow the publication of the exams has cost the Board of Education any money is absurd. Specifically, once the test was given, it could not be used again for any educationally sound assessment.

“Consider this: Approximately 9,000 Chicago Public School teachers had ac- cess to the CASE exams. To give the same test to students next year under the assumption that no one in the system would have copied the exam and primed their students for it, is beyond reasoning.

… Many of the thousands of teachers who gave the exams have voiced the same concerns as Mr. Schmidt. None had the power of the press at hand, as he did, but his concerns were those of all teachers who have an honest regard for honest measurement of student learning.”