Illinois lawmakers considering plan to limit tenure, strike rights

Print More

This is not a time of holiday cheer for teachers’ unions in Chicago and throughout Illinois. A hastily formed committee of the Illinois House of Representatives will hold hearings in Aurora this week with an agenda threatening to erode tenure and other job protections enjoyed by educators, and even to curtail dramatically the unions’ right to call a strike.

As is often the case with the Illinois Legislature, it is a challenge that arose with little warning.

This is not a time of holiday cheer for teachers’ unions in Chicago and throughout Illinois.

A hastily formed committee of the Illinois House of Representatives will hold hearings in Aurora this week with an agenda threatening to erode tenure and other job protections enjoyed by educators, and even to curtail dramatically the unions’ right to call a strike.

As is often the case with the Illinois Legislature, it is a challenge that arose with little warning.

The committee was formed just two weeks ago. It has eight members, four Democrats and four Republicans, but none represent Chicago. Its charge is to recommend “education reform” legislation that could be enacted no later than January 11, just a month from now.

What kind of reform? The official record is silent. No legislation is pending. No subject matter has been revealed. The only agenda circulating has been provided by interest groups: Advance Illinois, an education reform organization whose board is co-chaired by former Republican Gov. Jim Edgar and William M. Daley of JPMorgan Chase & Co., brother of Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley; and Stand for Children Illinois, an affiliate of an Oregon-based group that promotes charter schools.

According to information circulated by these groups, issues affecting the unions will be topics for the House committee when it convenes at 1 p.m. Thursday and again at 10 a.m. Friday in the Lecture Hall at the Illinois Math and Science Academy, 1500 W. Sullivan Road, Aurora.

The Chicago Teachers Union is organizing against the proposals, planning to bring members by bus to Aurora for the hearings.

Thursday’s topics are entitled: “Streamlining Teacher Dismissal, Reforming Teacher Tenure, Linking Layoffs to Performance, and Mutual Consent in Teacher Placement.” Friday morning’s hearing will be about “Strike Reform and Enhanced School Report Card.”

These are not issues the teachers’ unions would want to open up for discussion. But there are reasons, policy-based and political, why they are facing challenges in these respects.

And the challenges are serious.

Although no legislation has been filed, a “confidential draft” of bill language has been in circulation since the weekend. The committee members have it. The school board management alliance members have it. The education reform activists produced it. And the teachers’ unions have had a few days to look it over.

Briefly, here’s what this proposed legislation would do:

Tenure: Currently, teachers outside Chicago receive tenure – a condition of job security virtually for life – after two or, in some cases three years, on the job. The bill would increase that to four years, as in Chicago. But it also would permit tenure to be revoked for any teacher, based on job performance.

In this regard, the proposal is linked to the “Performance Evaluation Reform Act,” which took effect last January 15. The law requires teachers to be judged largely on the academic growth of their students, as measured by standardized tests and other considerations.

The Illinois State Board of Education has not finished writing the rules for the law. But under the proposal to be discussed in Aurora, when it takes effect, the state could revoke the certificate of a teacher or school principal with three or more “unsatisfactory” ratings in any 10-year period.

The bill provides lesser sanctions for poor performance ratings as well. In some circumstances, a school board could just return a teacher to probationary (non-tenured) status. Opportunities for appeals are included in the proposal, but the terms are drafted for quick resolution.

Vacancies: Under current union contracts, when a district reduces its staff, teachers with seniority are protected from cuts. They can “bump” teachers with fewer years of experience. The proposal under consideration empowers school boards to fill vacancies based on the performance ratings of applicants. Teachers’ union contract provisions requiring staffing decisions to be based on seniority would be declared “null” in this proposal.  (In Chicago, teachers can only bump those with less seniority at the same school, and principals have hiring power.)

Strikes: The proposal does not outlaw teacher strikes, but it puts in place a process that would appear to make them almost impossible. It revises the “impasse procedures” under the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act, including the creation of “Fact Finding Panels” with enormous authority.

A panel would have subpoena power. It could demand information and force the parties to identify all issues of dispute. It could hold hearings or mediate. Ultimately, it could force the parties to make “final offers” and set in motion a resolution process the teachers could not avoid. Not to bargain “in good faith” would be grounds for suspending a union as bargaining agent.

A well-positioned legislator said he thinks the anti-strike provisions are largely aimed at avoiding a strike in Chicago when the current union contract with CPS expires in 2012.

The draft language would also outlaw specific subjects of contract negotiation in Chicago alone. Specifically, it would:

  • Eliminate the union’s ability to bargain with the district over the length of the school day. (Chicago has one of the shortest school days of any urban district.)
  • Prevent the union from bargaining with the district on merit pay offered on top of teachers’ base salaries – a legal move that could make it easier for the district to implement the $34 million Teacher Incentive Fund grant it received from the federal government in September.
  • Bar CPS from negotiating with teachers on layoffs due to budget deficits, declining school enrollment, and school closures.

Essentially, the draft being circulated is the starting point for discussions aimed at curtailing statutory benefits the teachers’ unions fought for years to obtain. Fending off these attacks will be a challenge, and time is short. The legislature could act on the reforms as early as January 3.

There is a larger context to all of this.

The state’s fiscal crisis – an accumulated deficit approaching $15 billion – will require, in the view of most observers, a significant income tax increase and sales tax base expansion. The political stress on legislators is unlike anything they have faced in recent memory.

A common theory is that “reforms” of many kinds – in education, Medicaid, workers compensation and other concerns, especially desired in the House and Senate Republican caucuses – will have to be passed in a package in order to get 60 votes in the House and 30 in the Senate for any avenue to bring in more revenue.

Other recently created committees dealing with such issues are also holding hearings this month.

Jim Broadway is publisher of State School News Service, which provides news and analysis on school policy in Illinois. Catalyst Associate Editor Rebecca Harris contributed to this report.