SPRINGFIELD — Education reformers in Illinois were able to turn a loss into a win last week when the Senate passed legislation that changes teacher tenure, hiring and firing.

By Melissa Leu

SPRINGFIELD — Education reformers in Illinois were able to turn a loss into a win last week when the Senate passed legislation that changes teacher tenure, hiring and firing.

The changes came about after months of negotiations between the teacher’s unions, education reformers and lawmakers, but have the roots of the reform can be found in Illinois failed bid for Race to the Top funds, said Sen. Kimberly Lightford, D-Westchester, who led the discussions.

“It’s not that we’ve never wanted to do it before. I think Race to The Top was our driving force to get us all honest and fair, and willing to negotiate at the table,” Lightford said.

Race to the Top was part of the federally funded stimulus package. It called for states to compete for funds based on reforms to improve student achievement. Illinois was eligible for between $200 million and $400 million.

As part of the “race” for funds, Illinois passed the Performance Evaluation Reform Act of 2010, known as PERA, which will place teacher performance on evaluations for the first time by 2016.

“The idea was, ‘Well, we may or may not get this, but is this the direction that we want to go — to tie evaluations to student growth? — and I think everyone agreed that it was,” said State Rep. Roger Eddy, R-Hutsonville.

PERA also changed teacher evaluation to include a “needs improvement” option, which allowed teachers some wiggle room before receiving “unsatisfactory” ratings.

“These were going to give much better feedback (than the evaluations were) to teachers from principals as they developed, and of how people were performing at the classroom and at the school level,” said Robin Steans, executive director of Advance Illinois.

But improving evaluations didn’t mean they were being used constructively, Steans added.

Widely hailed as making historic reforms, Senate Bill 630 passed unanimously in the Senate on April 14. Key reforms centered on placing teacher performance based on evaluations ahead of seniority when it comes to tenure, filling new and open positions and layoffs.

“Without PERA, it would have been very difficult to get at a lot of what we did in Senate Bill (630). PERA laid some great foundation for what’s coming next,” said Jessica Handy, policy director of Stand for Children in Illinois.

Stand for Children is a relatively new nonprofit, nonpartisan organization operating in Illinois.

The group, according to its website, said it uses “the power of grassroots action to help all children get the excellent public education and strong support they need to thrive.”

Steans called the measure the next logical step to a law that didn’t have enough time to be as comprehensive as she had hoped.

“It takes what PERA does and puts it to use. … In other words, we’re going to have better evaluations, the question (was) what do we do with them?” Steans said.

As a whole, the plan may not be a cure all for education in Illinois, but it’s garnered momentum unseen in last year’s talks for Race to the Top, Handy said.

“At the end of the day, we’re hoping that we’ve got this broad-base coalition of support, and we don’t want to see any changes,” Handy said.

SB 630 now heads to the House for consideration, where House Speaker Michael Madigan will take up the measure.

Madigan previously has supported eliminating teacher tenure, but spokesman Steve Brown said the speaker is going to take a “good look” at the Senate bill.

“What we really want to do is find the best way to keep good teachers in the classroom,” Brown said. “Obviously, they’ve accomplished some good, but it’s a two-chamber process.”

Eddy, who is a superintendent at Hutsonville Community Unit School District and a legislator, said that he’ll be taking a closer look at time frames to obtain tenure, especially accelerated tenure, which allows teachers to obtain tenure earlier if they’ve already received positive evaluations and tenure at a different school.

“There’s some tweaking that is appropriate, but wholesale changes to be critical to the body of work that they’ve done? I don’t think that’s appropriate. I think they’ve done a really, really good job,” Eddy said.

Lightford, however, worried about Eddy being too close to the subject.

“I believe that if he began to put his personal opinion in, it can be swayed by his perspective as a superintendent,” Lightford said. “Where if you have a group, it’s the perspective of the teachers, the principal, the union side, the reform side, all of them together decided the ramifications that will be put in place for the superintendent, not a superintendent himself.”

Eddy brushed those fears aside.

“I think conflict of interest is something that happens when an individual has a personal stake or they have a gain to be made, and that’s certainly not the case here,” Eddy said.

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