SPRINGFIELD – Illinois lawmakers, teachers and education reformers may have to stay after school a little while longer to deal with the latest recommendations on education reform.

By Melissa Leu

SPRINGFIELD – Illinois lawmakers, teachers and education reformers may have to stay after school a little while longer to deal with the latest recommendations on education reform.

State Sen. Kimberly Lightford, D-Maywood, has been spearheading discussions on education reform since January. The talks are expected to end this Thursday, but major disputes over collective bargaining remain unresolved.

“For me, (it’s about) what’s best for the student and the classroom. If we’re all focused on getting the best results for the students, I’m pretty sure we can come up as education stakeholders and adults and professionals in the room with the process in which to get there,” Lightford said.

But Lightford is not saying anything about an outcome of Thursday’s meeting, which could come down to a fight over teacher strikes.

Evanstonian Audrey Soglin, executive director of the teacher’s union Illinois Education Association, has been fighting against collective bargaining reforms from the beginning.

“We have a strong stance that the collective bargaining in our state works. We do not believe they need to be changed. We do not offer any compromises or any other solutions to any of the issues that they raised,” Soglin said.

The Illinois Education Association has been working with a coalition of teachers to advance ideas they’ve dubbed “Accountability for All,” a proposal that calls for increased professional development and outlines procedures for obtaining tenure and filling of vacant positions.

Jonah Edelman, head of Stand for Children Illinois, worried more about the threat of a strike that teachers may use to block negotiations for longer school days.

“We can’t continue to afford to kick the can down the road for kids in Chicago who are going to school for less than 6 hours a day, 170 days a year, getting four years less schooling over their K-12 career than students in other districts — that’s just not right,” Edelman said.

Stand for Children is a relatively new education reformer in Illinois. The group came to Illinois last year, but has had a presence in other states for years. In Illinois, Stand for Children is lining up with business groups and some conservative-leaning groups to back performance-based education reforms, but has also received support from churches and community groups in Chicago.

Supporters of collective bargaining rights, however, say that strikes aren’t likely.

Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teacher’s Union and executive vice president of Illinois Federation of Teachers, said the original plan stripped all collective bargaining rights except for salary negotiations.

“I wanted the bill dead to be honest with you… we didn’t want to see any of this mess,” Lewis said. “There was a mean spiritedness to this bill that had nothing to do with reform.”

Lewis said the reforms targeted teachers, instead of focusing on improving student programs.

Edelman, however, believes children are already being shortchanged.

“Because of the imbalance in the current way contracts are negotiated, the threat of a strike has been unfortunately used as a trump card to prevent key educational issues from being discussed and progress being made, and the most prominent case in point is student learning time,” Edelman said.

Discussions on education reform were spurred by “Race to the Top” legislation last fall, where Illinois failed to secure millions of dollars in federal funds. The Performance Evaluation Reform Act of 2010 placed student performance indicators on teacher evaluations for the first time.

Lightford expects the group’s recommendations to be amended to Senate Bill 7, which she hopes will be signed into law by the end of the year.

“We thought there would be a lot of push back and debate. There really hasn’t been a lot of push back, pretty much everyone is working together, (but) we still have the hurdle to climb on strikes,” Lightford said.

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