Thursday, April 14, 2011

Education reform sails through the Senate

By Jamey Dunn

They way teachers across the state are granted tenure, laid off and fired would change under legislation passed in the Senate with no opposition today.

After months of negotiations, reform groups, teachers’ unions and administrators found common ground, and interest groups on all sides signed off on the bill.

“The reform groups, the education groups, the management groups, the legislators, we all agree that our children come first,” said Maywood Democratic Sen. Kimberly Lightford, sponsor of Senate Bill 630. “We all agree that the most important effort in our negotiations is, at the end of the day, what’s best for the child in the classroom.”

Under the bill, teachers would have to receive positive evaluations during the last three years of a four-year probationary period to be granted tenure. Teachers who earn “excellent” reviews in each of their first three years would also earn tenure. Teachers with tenure who receive two unsatisfactory reviews within a seven-year period could have their teaching licenses reviewed by the state superintendent and be required to complete professional development geared toward improving their performance or face having their licenses revoked. The measure also streamlines the process for firing tenured teachers. Half of teachers’ evaluations will be based on student performance under a new system that goes into effect in 2016. Under Lightford’s bill, school districts and teachers' unions could agree to move up the implementation date of the new system to as early as 2013.

“With this bill, we’re going to ensure that the better teachers stay and the lesser teachers go,” said Palatine Republican Sen. Matt Murphy, who worked with Lightford on the negotiations.

Layoffs would no longer be decided on a “last-in-first-out” basis, but instead would be determined by qualifications and job performance. Seniority would only be used as a “tie-breaker.” Administrators would be free to hire any candidate for new positions instead of giving preference to teachers transferring within the district.

The decision to strike would remain in the hands of unions—an issue that was a contentious part of negotiations between reform groups and unions. In Chicago, three-fourths of union members would have to agree to a strike. Teachers outside of the city could still strike if half of union members agreed. The measure would lengthen negotiations before a strike and would require both sides to release their demands to the public if an impasse is reached.

“I believe what we have here is historic education reform,” said Ken Swanson, Illinois Education Association President. “This is going to be both good for children, and it preserves in an appropriate way the voice of the professionals doing the work with students every day.”

The push for this legislation came to the forefront during the close of the last legislative session, and  out-of-state reform group Stand for Children emerged as a key player. The organization donated more than half a million dollars to Illinois legislative candidates during the last election cycle, giving the majority of the money to Democrats.

“There were rumors that this group came into Illinois--Stand for Children. And they’re very wealthy, and they have a lot of money, and they’re going to make us move. So unlike the truth. We were already in the midst of education reform,” Lightford said, citing recent reforms the legislature passed as part of the state’s bid for the federal Race to the Top grant program.

“Having a great teacher in the classroom is the most important school-based factor in affecting student outcomes. And this shift to making performance the driving factor in personnel decisions is ultimately a huge win for children,” said Jessica Handy, who left the Senate Democrats' staff to become Stand for Children’s Illinois policy director.

Players on all sides of the issue commended those involved for compromising on substantial changes and pointed to much more volatile situations involving teachers’ unions in other states, including the recent protests in Wisconsin over a measure that seeks to strip public employees of their collective bargaining rights. “What this shows is that to have meaningful reform that will work, you have to have the unions at the table. And here in Illinois, what we’ve shown is you do not need to have draconian unwarranted attacks on public employee rights [and] collective bargaining. You can do this through collective bargaining. You can do this through bringing the parties to the table. So Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, other states look to Illinois. We’ll show you how to do it the right way,” Swanson said.

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