‘Thoughtful’ talks on teacher firing, other education reforms

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Education reform is still an issue – below the surface – in Springfield. Back in December, you’ll recall, there was an emergency of sorts
concerning state policy about teachers, about how to get rid of the
incompetent ones and how to prevent teachers’ unions from striking.

Education reform is still an issue – below the surface – in Springfield.

Back in December, you’ll recall, there was an emergency of sorts concerning state policy about teachers, about how to get rid of the incompetent ones and how to prevent teachers’ unions from striking.

Special “Education Reform” committees were created in the Illinois House and Senate. They held long hearings and took testimony from school management groups, union representatives, school reform advocates and pretty much anyone with an idea to put forth.

The starting point was a draft of proposed legislation that effectively would prohibit a school strike and give school administrators a magic broom they could use to sweep out any teachers they thought were incompetent – or for pretty much any other reason that came to mind.

It was a real rush job. The committees were expected to rewrite the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act in about four weeks and to file a bill for the House and Senate to enact in the first week of January. For hundreds of affected advocates, the holiday season was lost.

What was the hurry? It depended on whom you asked. Some said Republican legislators needed an incentive to vote for an income tax increase. That happened without one GOP vote of support.

Others said the no-strike law was needed to avert a Chicago school strike in 2012. “That is ridiculous,” Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis said. “Why would we do that?” Union strikes have become rare in Illinois. Chicago hasn’t seen one for 23 years.

In the end, nothing came from all that dust in the air. There was no bill. A whole new

General Assembly was sworn into office on January 12 and the emergency faded away. State legislators have since filed 6,231 bills – none of them remotely resembling “education reform.”

Does that mean the whole idea has been dropped with a “never mind”?

No, that is not the case. The imperatives to streamline the dismissal of incompetent teachers and to assert a rational basis for filling classroom vacancies remain as legislative goals. The topic has merely moved below the surface, into a process of “stakeholder negotiations.”

The stakeholders include the Chicago Teachers Union and the two statewide teachers’ organizations (the Illinois Federation of Teachers and Illinois Education Association), groups representing school management and school reform advocacy groups, such as Advance Illinois and Stand for Children Illinois, who had pushed hard for the December draft proposal.

State Sen. Kimberly Lightford (D-Westchester) has become the point person for the legislature, chairing the meetings and making sure education policy leaders of the House are informed and consulted. The draft distributed in December has been discarded. We are told the process is now “thoughtful.”

There will be no “reform” that eliminates collective bargaining in Illinois. This is not Wisconsin.

As to teacher dismissals and to filling staff vacancies or deciding, in a layoff situation, who will be retained and who will be laid off, consensus appears to have emerged, even among the teachers’ unions, that current state policy is irrational and not beneficial to the students.

The goal, sources say, is for “performance” – as measured by students’ test scores and other types of assessments – to count more in a dismissal or assignment decision than mere years of experience as a teacher. Tenure will still count, but in a subordinate way.

From such general concepts the negotiators plow into the details, which can become a bit sticky.

For example, consider two teachers who want an assignment in a science classroom. Both possess the required credentials. One has been teaching for 15 years but has never taught science; the other has been teaching for just 10 years, but has taught science for all that time.

One has more experience, but the other arguably has more “relevant” experience. The wording of any bill governing such issues will have to “make a choice” in this respect, and apparently there is some disagreement among the negotiators as to which it should be.

In any rewrite of the Education Labor Relations Act, there may be scores of such subtle distinctions to be made. The expectation now is that reform will emerge late in the legislative session, in April or even May, as an amendment to a bill, or perhaps more than one bill, already pending.

At that time, the issue will rise to the surface in ways that invite comments from individuals not now participating in the “stakeholders’” discussions. Even parents and other members of the general public will be able to have their say about the legislation under consideration.

In the meantime, it is a process confined to insiders.

Jim Broadway is founder and publisher of State School News Service.