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Senate passes compromise on teacher collective bargaining, firings

school-reform

SPRINGFIELD – Illinois education reformers, teachers unions and parents are rarely on the same side, but a new Senate plan making historic education reforms changes all that.

By Melissa Leu

SPRINGFIELD – Illinois education reformers, teachers unions and parents are rarely on the same side, but a new Senate plan making historic education reforms changes all that.

Sen. Kimberly Lightford, D-Westchester, announced Thursday a plan that would make it harder for teachers in the state to strike and ties teacher tenure, promotions and firing to job performance. Senate Bill 630 passed unanimously in the Senate later in the day.

Lightford, who led five months of discussions, said it's been a long process with no one party getting exactly what it wanted.

"We all agreed that the most important effort in our negotiations is that at the end of the day what's best for the child in the classroom. And that's how we did it (created reform)," Lightford said.

Chief among the changes has been the changing of collective bargaining rights, which have been the main point of contention for teacher unions.

The proposal would create two sets of collective bargaining rights for teachers in Chicago and teachers downstate.

Before Chicago teachers can strike, they would have to go through extensive mediation and provide a report to the public for review. If negotiations fail, three-fourths of all union members must vote to strike.

The entire process could take up to three to four months for Chicago teachers, and for those located downstate, up to two months.

Jessica Handy with Stand for Children said Chicago always has been treated differently.

"Especially in regards to contract negotiations, Chicago, just the threat of a strike when you have 400,000-plus students, becomes a lot more of a trump card and has really stifled reform a lot more in Chicago then the rest of the state we've seen," Handy said.

Currently, teachers' unions statewide must inform schools of its intent to strike 10 days before a strike.

Stand for Children is an education reform advocacy organization that focuses "on securing adequate funding for public schools and reforming education policies and practices to help children thrive academically," according to its website.

Despite tougher regulation, Illinois Education Association teachers' union President Ken Swanson credits the open discussion to avoiding situations in neighboring states, such as Wisconsin.

"What we've shown is you do not have to have Draconian, unwarranted attacks on public employee rights (for) collective bargaining," Swanson said. "You can do this through collective bargaining. You can do this through bringing the parties to the table."

The plan also places more stringent time frames for firing tenured teachers, while making it easier for teachers with tenure in one district to attain tenure in another district.

Other key reforms shifted the emphasis from teacher seniority to performance.

  • Layoffs will be based on qualifications, certification and performance evaluations before seniority is considered.
  • Teachers will be promoted based on "relevant experience" instead of seniority.
  • Performance evaluations will be added as a requirement to attain tenure.

The stimulus for education reform came after Illinois failed to grab millions of federal "Race to the Top" funds last fall.

Robin Steans, executive director of Advance Illinois, said the unsuccessful attempt paved the way for even greater reforms.

"While we were unfortunately not the recipient of half a billion dollars in Race to the Top … what we got as a result was a comprehensive blueprint for educational reform for the state," Steans said.

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.

Not everyone, however, thought the plan would be the panacea to Illinois' education ails. Sen. David Luechtefeld, R-Okawville, however, said it was a first step in the right direction.

"Will you see a huge difference in education, all of a sudden it's going to take off and be the greatest in the country? Probably not. There are some issues that we can't solve with legislation," said Luechtefeld.

If passed, reforms are expected to be fully implemented by the 2013-2014 school year.

"There is a lot here to be implemented," Swanson said. "We need time to do it right, so I hope everyone can take a deep breath and let us start implementing."

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