Illinois law on teacher tenure, union rights touted as model for other states

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WASHINGTON—The new Illinois law that overhauls teacher tenure,
collective bargaining, layoff procedures, and the right to strike took
the stage in the nation’s capital on Wednesday, with several key people
behind the measure holding it up as a model for other states. WASHINGTON—The new Illinois law that overhauls teacher tenure, collective bargaining, layoff procedures, and the right to strike took the stage in the nation’s capital on Wednesday, with several key people behind the measure holding it up as a model for other states.

“My challenge was keeping everyone at the table,” said state Sen. Kimberly A. Lightford (D-Maywood), the assistant majority leader credited with shepherding the measure known as Senate Bill 7 through the Legislature earlier this year.

Speaking at a two-hour symposium on the law at the Center for American Progress, Lightford and others highlighted a collaborative negotiation process that included legislative leaders, key reform organizations, and the teachers’ unions.

“We were on the same planet,” said Jonathan Furr, a partner at Holland & Knight in Chicago who represented the group Advance Illinois during the process. “Some dialogues here in D.C. and in other states [on such teacher issues] aren’t even in the same solar system.”

The Center for American Progress is a progressive think tank led by John D. Podesta, who was a chief of staff to President Bill Clinton. In a paper for the Center, lawyer Elliot Regenstein said SB 7 benefited from a wave of collaborative discussion in 2009 and 2010 among various stakeholders on teacher-effectiveness. The law also benefitted from the process that crafted Illinois’ applications—ultimately unsuccessful—for federal Race to the Top grants.

Regenstein, a partner with EducationCounsel in Chicago, also cites the participation of groups such as Advance Illinois, co-founded by former Gov. Jim Edgar, and Stand for Children, an Oregon-based organization that put its own reform stamp on teacher-effectiveness proposals.

In Illinois, Stand for Children has been controversial because the group swept into the state to push its legislative agenda and quickly garnered $3 million from some of Chicago’s wealthiest civic leaders. Comments by national Stand for Children director Jonah Edelman have garnered attention because he bragged about using SB7 to curb teachers’ labor rights. Edelman has since apologized.

Lightford “convened larger group meetings at which all of the key stakeholders were represented,” Regenstein says. Later, the group was whittled down to include the groups Lightford considered “truly necessary to the discussions.”

Lightford said Wednesday that it was difficult to have as many as 80 people representing various interests at these meetings.  “I minimized the size of the meetings and I was criticized for it,” Lightford said. “So be it.”

Illinois Education Association Executive Director Audrey Soglin, Advance Illinois Executive Director Robin Steans and key legislators participated in smaller meetings. As the discussion advanced, details of the bill were hammered out by a team of four lawyers: a lawyer for the Illinois Education Association; Furr of Advance Illinois; a lawyer for the Illinois Association of School Administrators; and Darren Reisberg, the deputy state superintendent and the general counsel of the Illinois State Board of Education.

The bill was signed by Gov. Pat Quinn on June 13 at the Maywood public school Lightford attended as a child.

No representatives of the Chicago Teachers Union or its parent unions, the Illinois Federation of Teachers and the American Federation of Teachers, spoke at the Wednesday event.


UNIONS ‘FACING REALITY?’

Reisberg said that the 75 percent strike-approval provision and other Chicago measures got much of the attention late in the process, but that should not overshadow the fact that SB 7 will be significant for all of the more than 860 other school districts in Illinois.

“Really, in large part this bill is about everything other than Chicago,” Reisberg said. “The majority of the reforms are really Downstate-focused.”

Soglin of the IEA, an affiliate of the National Education Association, whose locals represent teachers in many suburban and downstate districts, said the tenure and reduction-in-force provisions were among the most contentious in SB 7.

“Tenure is access to due process and access to just cause” for teacher discipline and removal, Soglin said. “It isn’t a lifetime guarantee of a job.”

But she acknowledged that the teachers’ unions are facing reality by engaging in discussions and altering some of their long-held positions on such issues.

“We came at this with the idea that we agreed performance had to have a role” in layoff procedures, Soglin said. “But you cannot say that experience and seniority don’t matter.”

As for lessons for other states, Regenstein’s report offers a lengthy list, including: “sequencing can be key,” or building on bills in separate legislative sessions; “engage an honest broker” such as someone like Lightford; thoughtful counter-proposals to initial ideas “can go a long way”; and “show humility and respect others.”

SB 7 was praised by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and at the event here Wednesday, Brad Jupp, a senior program adviser in Duncan’s office, said Illinois had accomplished a lot by passing the measure, but there was still much work to do.

“This is very much a local game,” said Jupp, who is on loan from the Denver public schools. “You still have very difficult things to do to execute at the local level.”

John M. Luczak, the education program manager at The Joyce Foundation in Chicago, who led the discussion here, agreed with that assessment.

“Passing the law is the easy part,” he said. “Now we really need to focus on implementation.” 

Mark Walsh is based in Washington, D.C. and writes regularly for Education Week.