SPRINGFIELD — Lawmakers, teachers’ unions and education reformers may be pulling hairs over objections to recently passed education reforms, but local school districts aren’t feeling the stress.

By Melissa Leu

SPRINGFIELD — Lawmakers, teachers’ unions and education reformers may be pulling hairs over objections to recently passed education reforms, but local school districts aren’t feeling the stress.

A statement by the Chicago Teacher’s Union rejecting collective bargaining provisions in education reform legislation passed in April by the state Senate surprised many who were part of a coalition of education reformers.

“I think (CTU’s response) was prematurely done. I don’t know that their aggression is to this legislation more so as to their ongoing fight they have with CPS (Chicago Public Schools) and the ongoing misunderstanding with their board,” said state Sen. Kimberly Lightford, D-Chicago, who led the negotiations.

The reforms were lauded for bringing together lawmakers, teachers’ unions and education reform advocates to the negotiating table.

For local schools outside of Chicago, however, the pending reforms and ensuing debate aren’t much cause for alarm.

“I don’t think that we really need anything. We’re working quite well within the system. I’m not threatened by it — the current legislation, the current language, the current issues — but if they were to make changes to it, Alton doesn’t have a problem with any of it,” said Ed Gray, school board president of Alton School District.

Senate Bill 630 creates different collective bargaining rules for Chicago and downstate teachers. Chicago teachers needed three-fourths of their members to vote to strike, while teachers downstate would need only a majority.

CTU’s complaints stem from wording that requires all “union members” in that three-fourths count, instead of all “eligible” voting union members. The union is divided into voting and non-voting members.

La Salle School Board President James Quesse said it doesn’t make much difference to him. He’s more interested in reviving funding the state has been cutting back on.

“For downstate educators and downstate board members, the Chicago Public School system is in a state all itself,” Quesse said. “Not too much that happens up there affects us, but I understand it’s a different dynamic up there and it tends to be that way.”

Education reformers involved in the negotiations believe Chicago and downstate schools have a history of being treated differently.

“The threat for 400,000 students is a much bigger threat than it is for a smaller community. So the way a strike would be handled is different than in downstate,” said Stand for Children Policy Director Jessica Handy

Stand for Children is an education advocacy organization that focuses on securing funding for public schools and education reform, according to its website.

Jackson Potter with the CTU said the changes were last minute and not agreed upon.

“We didn’t have (the) time to determine its full impact until later, and now that we know, and it wasn’t part of the negotiation, it needs to come out,” Potter said.

After taking a member vote on Wednesday, CTU officials said it continues to support the overall legislation, but it wants changes to reflect “eligible” union members and allow the Illinois Education Labor Board jurisdiction in collective bargaining agreements.

Advance Illinois Executive Director Robin Steans disagreed with assertions of foul play.

“There was no bad faith at the time. There’s no bad faith now. … (Their statements aren’t) reflective of reality, so those conversations have come to a screeching halt,” said Steans, who noted the group had been meeting earlier in the week to resolve those issues.

Advance Illinois is an education reform group co-founded by former Illinois Republican Gov. Jim Edgar and former U.S. Secretary of Commerce Bill Daley, now White House chief of staff to President Barack Obama.

When the measure was drafted, CTU had left before negotiations had finished. Technical changes were added in a separate measure, Senate Bill 7, said Lightford.

Lightford said she’s working with House leadership to take into account the concerns CTU has raised.

“There’s minimal changes that really need to be made to the substance,” Lightford said. “If there are technical drafting errors that need to be made, that’s acceptable, but to change the direction of the agreements would not be beneficial to negotiating in good faith with the group.”

Despite union opposition, the plan is expected to go on, House education expert Rep. Roger Eddy, R-Hutsonville, said.

“We have a real opportunity here to implement some long-awaited substantial reforms in education that for the first time implement the performance of teachers into the decision-making that concerns employment. I would really hate to see all that lost,” Eddy said.

But Taylorville School District Superintendent Gregg Fuerstenau will most likely wait for the final result before weighing in.

“Until we get legislation panned out, I’m just in the monitoring stage. We have professional organizations to work on our behalf and working with them and keeping us posted on what’s going on with the legislation,” Fuerstenau said.

ISN Reporters Mary J. Cristobal and Diane Lee contributed to this report.

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