Teachers unions unveil plan for tenure reform, but stand firm on strike rights

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The clash of education reform proposals in the Illinois House and Senate
appears unlikely to be resolved by January 11, but it’s likely to be a
hot item throughout the spring legislative session after the new 97th
General Assembly convenes with a clean slate on January 12. Teachers’ unions have crafted their own reform
plan, which was discussed by union representatives at a four-hour
hearing of the Senate Education Reform Committee on Monday.

The clash of education reform proposals in the Illinois House and Senate appears unlikely to be resolved by January 11, but it’s likely to be a hot item throughout the spring legislative session after the new 97th General Assembly convenes with a clean slate on January 12.

As the clash heats up, teachers’ unions have crafted their own reform plan, which was discussed by union representatives at a four-hour hearing of the Senate Education Reform Committee on Monday.

The issue erupted in December when two education reform committees were created in the House and Senate and draft legislation called “Performance Counts” – designed by reform advocacy groups Advance Illinois and Stand for Children Illinois – was debated for two days in the House committee.

That proposal would dramatically alter current law on teacher tenure and dismissal, and would virtually eliminate teachers’ right to strike. Advance Illinois said the proposal was in the works for a year, but the teachers’ unions saw it for the first time about a week before Christmas.

Given just about two weeks to draft an alternative proposal, lawyers for the Chicago Teachers Union, the Illinois Federation of Teachers and the Illinois Education Association worked through the holidays and came up with a plan they call “Accountability for All.”

Although they differ in the details, the proposals have similar elements. Both would link a teacher’s classroom performance to the granting of tenure, recertification and decisions on dismissal for incompetence, filling job vacancies or reductions in force.

Performance would be measured in part by student achievement. Both proposals would streamline dismissal, but the union version would require better support for teachers in such areas as professional development and remediation.

The unions also want induction and mentoring programs to help new teachers succeed, and propose similar “accountability” processes for principals and district administrators, plus four hours of required training for school board members, among other things.

Also included in the union proposal is a “Students’ Bill of Rights,” including requirements that all classrooms begin each school year with a qualified teacher (not a substitute), and that art, music and other subjects that are often dropped in a fiscal crunch be included in the curriculum.

For the unions, eliminating the right to strike is a non-starter. Although Advance Illinois claims its plan does not do that, any rational reading of it would suggest in fact that it does.

The unions’ position is that the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act is working well in this regard, as evidenced by the fact that the Chicago Public Schools hasn’t had a strike in 23 years and only about two strikes occur annually among Illinois’ other 868 districts.

The reform advocacy groups, and supporting organizations such as the Illinois Business Roundtable, have testified that the “threat of a strike” is sufficient to force school boards to bow to teachers’ demands to avoid the community disturbance caused by a shutdown of the schools.

The unions reject that argument out of hand, asserting that school teachers are under great pressure to avoid voting to strike, also because they will be held accountable – by their friends and neighbors and people in the stores where they shop – as a cause of community disruption.

“There is pressure on both sides to avert a strike,” IFT President Dan Montgomery told the senators.

Both proposals are complicated and involve major revisions to laws that have been tweaked occasionally over the years, usually after months of give-and-take negotiations.

The tone of the current hearings suggests reform of some significance is likely – but that it will not come on a fast track.

Senate Education Reform Committee Co-Chair Kimberly Lightford (D-Maywood) noted on Monday the need to move cautiously, signaling an intention to take “subject matter” testimony but not to try to enact legislation on this issue in January.

Word circulated Tuesday that Senate President John Cullerton has taken education reform off his chamber’s agenda through the end of the 96th General Assembly, with the expectation that it will be a major target for legislation in the legislative session from January 12 through May 30.

That leaves two major areas of reform – Medicaid and workers compensation – remaining on the fast track with a January 11 deadline. Both subjects are of particular interest to the Republican caucuses, which are expected to contribute votes to a tax increase, which is also a fast-track item.

Reaction from the GOP could reload the education reform issue, of course, but at this time it appears legislators of both parties trust the teachers’ unions to participate in meaningful negotiations through the spring session.

Jim Broadway is publisher and founder of State School News Service in Springfield, Ill.