Chicago school board suspends teacher for publishing test questions

Thursday, March 11, 1999

Chicago public school officials last week suspended without pay a teacher who published questions from the school system's new standardized achievement tests in a monthly newspaper.

The suspension comes five weeks after the Chicago School Reform Board of Trustees filed a $1 million lawsuit against George Schmidt, a 30-year veteran of Chicago schools. Schmidt publishes Substance, a teacher-written publication that regularly criticizes the board and Paul Vallas, the school system's chief executive officer.

“In one way, it's an honor,” said Schmidt, who then recited the First Amendment. “There are not a lot of people who have memorized those few lines, but that is truly what this is about.”

In the newspaper's Jan. 20 edition, Schmidt published portions of the English, social studies and math tests. In an accompanying article, he wrote: “The time has come to debate the educational integrity of the claims of the Vallas administration.”

In their lawsuit, school officials said they had spent more than $500,000 and hundreds of hours to create the 1998 Chicago Academic Standards Examinations to gauge the progress of high school freshmen and sophomores. They said they had hoped to use the test in the future, possibly expanding it to test all Chicago high school students.

But Schmidt and the newspaper “in one willful and self-serving act, destroyed what Trustee has tried so hard to accomplish,” the board's lawsuit says. The lawsuit also claims “the only reasonable means of repairing the destruction” is a court order to retrieve every single copy of the newspaper.

“The Newspaper and other materials already disseminated must be confiscated, even if it takes the U.S. Marshals going to every Chicago Public School teacher's home,” the lawsuit says. “The unauthorized copies must be destroyed.”

On Jan. 26, U.S. District Court Judge Charles Norgle granted the board a temporary restraining order to prevent Substance from publishing additional copies of the Jan. 20 edition. Although he lifted the order three days later, he allowed the board's lawsuit against Schmidt to proceed.

In part, the board claims Schmidt violated copyright laws by printing the test, even though they admit they didn't file for a copyright until after Substance was published.

School officials referred questions to board attorney Marilyn Johnson, who did not return calls left with her office.

“The school board contends that it could copyright the test and prevent anyone from disclosing and criticizing the test after it was given,” Schmidt said in a faxed statement. “All of us had a right to see how goofy the questions were. I tried to start a public discussion of these dreadful standardized tests, and [Vallas] suspended me.”

In a telephone interview, Schmidt added: “All of the charges that they filed against me for various things pertain to the publication of the test scores. Not one pertains to my teaching or my other duties as a teacher.”

But in court and suspension documents, school officials disagree. They claim that Schmidt violated his duty to keep test materials “confidential and secure.”

Schmidt served as an English teacher and part-time security coordinator at James H. Bowen High School until the lawsuit. He has published Substance, which has more than 1,200 subscribers, for nearly 20 years.

After the lawsuit, the board transferred him to a central office position until his suspension. His termination hearing is scheduled for March 24.

In the meantime, Schmidt says he has fought the battle only with the help of his lawyers, other teachers and friends. He says he doesn't understand why groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and the Chicago newspapers haven't acknowledged his First Amendment battle.

“On the same day (Jan. 28), both the (Chicago) Tribune and (Chicago) Sun-Times wrote editorials against me,” Schmidt said. “It's like they both woke up that morning and said let's do an editorial about that teacher and how he should either be seriously disciplined or fired. Wow! And that's an example of the types of problems we're having.”