Curbing tenure, strike rights: analysis of education reform legislation

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Legislation streamlining the process by which school districts can terminate teachers for incompetence or bad behavior – and making school strikes in Chicago very unlikely –is expected to pass the state Senate by Friday, making Illinois one of a number of states that are seeking to cut back on teacher tenure rights.

Legislation streamlining the process by which school districts can terminate teachers for incompetence or bad behavior – and making school strikes in Chicago very unlikely –is expected to pass the state Senate by Friday, making Illinois one of a number of states that are seeking to cut back on teacher tenure rights.

“It’s a consensus bill,” said Robin Steans, executive director of the reform advocacy group Advance Illinois, with a tone of excitement in her voice.

Steans has been a leading figure since December in negotiations to reach the pending legislative agreement. Her exuberance late Wednesday illustrated the magnitude of the achievement of getting all parties to sign off on such a potentially contentious issue.

According to Sen. Kimberly Lightford, the sponsor of the legislation, the negotiations involved every educational stakeholder group, legislators in the House and the Senate, business interests and school reform advocacy organizations such as Advance Illinois.

“At times, as many as 30 people were in the room,” she said.

Steans particularly praised the efforts of the Illinois Education Association, the Illinois Federation of Teachers and the Chicago Teachers Union. The teachers’ unions “really stepped up and worked” to resolve legitimate concerns while protecting teachers’ interests, she said.

Among other states that are seeking to curb tenure, or have already done so, include Florida, Colorado,Ohio and Tennessee.

The legislation also includes provisions that would allow the Chicago Public Schools to lengthen the school day and year, something that Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel has said he plans to do.

Perhaps the most volatile issue related to the right of CTU teachers to strike.

From the start, business interests had pushed to make a work stoppage impossible. They insisted on policy that would eliminate even the “threat to strike,” which they argued has the effect of making CPS leaders “cave” to CTU demands.

The agreement, drafted as an amendment to Senate Bill 7, does not go that far.

To a significant extent, the agreement relies on public opinion to prevent strikes. If mediation (a step already codified but further defined in the amendment) fails to prevent an impasse, no strike could be called until at least 14 days after the mediator has “made public the final offers.”

Further, if a fact-finding process as detailed in the amendment has been invoked, no strike could be called until at least 30 days after the fact-finders’ report “has been released for public information.”

Perhaps the strongest deterrent to a strike is a provision requiring the union’s decision to strike an emphatic one. A strike would require “at least three-fourths of all bargaining unit members of the exclusive bargaining representative to have affirmatively voted to authorize a strike.”

The amendment also sets out similar steps in processes that unions representing employees of the state’s other 867 school districts, and those districts’ boards, would be required to take before a strike by the organized employees could go out on strike.

The other main element of this 111-page amendment – dealing with dismissal of teachers who are incompetent or behave badly, with protocols for filling vacancies or deciding who will lose a job when layoff decisions must be made – has a lot of moving parts.

A major concession of the unions relates to the seniority system. The agreement generally prohibits job security based solely on a teacher’s years on the job. Only if other factors “are equal” will seniority decide the question of who gets the job and who becomes a RIF victim.

A heavy stress is placed on performance evaluations as the most decisive factor in such decisions. But there are complications. One is that the state’s education performance evaluation system is a work in progress. It has been enacted into law but is a year or more away from implementation.

Once the process is in place and evaluations have taken place, the agreement creates a complicated system of “grouping” employees on the basis of evaluation ratings (e.g., Proficient, or Excellent) and employing an alternative to what has been described as the “last in, first out” seniority system.

Individual teachers who are rated unsatisfactorily could be terminated under a streamlined process, but would retain rights to appeal a firing decision. From a list compiled by both the union and the school board, an outside evaluator – a “second set of eyes,” as Steans described it – would be selected to review the decision and the rationale for it.

If that process confirms the termination decision, the teacher could still appeal the decision by going directly to an Appellate Court, which would make a final decision based solely on the question of whether the process involved in the termination had been properly conducted.

Friday is the deadline for the Senate to act on this legislation. While the agreement could unravel or other barriers could arise, the likelihood is strong that the amendment will be adopted and the bill will be passed to the House by the end of the week.

Both legislative chambers will be on spring break next week, but the House will return to the Capitol on April 26. At that time it will begin to schedule committee hearings, including one for SB 7, and advance bills to the floor for final passage votes by the session’s adjournment on May 31.

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