Illinois education reform bill heads to Gov. Quinn

Marshall Cohen

A major education reform bill is on its way to Gov. Pat Quinn’s desk after months of negotiations and controversy.

At its core, Illinois Senate Bill 7 changes the way teachers are hired and fired by basing tenure decisions on performance instead of seniority. The current rule, which automatically grants Illinois teachers tenure after four years in the classroom, would no longer exist.

Under the new bill, the process of firing tenured teachers with poor performance reviews would be easier, less expensive and more feasible.

The bill also contains language aimed at improving learning conditions. School board members would be required to complete four hours of training in order to fill the position. Chicago Public Schools would have the power to open negotiations on extending the school day. It would also be more difficult for Chicago Public Schools teachers to go on strike, as three-fourths of all union members would need to vote in favor of a strike.

Jean Luft, president of the District 65 Educators’ Council, supports the bill and said it will bring positive changes to Evanston’s public schools.

“There is a lot of work to be done now, but we’re trusting our state leadership,” she said.

According to Luft, under the new law, all Evanston schools would need to survey their employees at some point during the next few years. Teachers, parents and administrators would provide input on the learning conditions in that school, and results would be reported out to the school district and to the State Board of Education, she said.

Performance would play a role in determining tenure, Luft said.

“Under the new law, a really excellent teacher could now get tenure in three years instead of four,” she said.

The legislation came after months of intense negotiations organized by state Sen. Kimberly Lightford (D-Maywood), with all sides at the table. Representatives from all three Illinois teachers unions, a number of education reform advocacy groups and school management groups and the Illinois State Board of Education met on a weekly basis for five months, starting in January this year.

Mary McClelland, communications director for Stand for Children Illinois, an education reform advocacy group that participated in negociations, said the bill was meticulously crafted.

“We went line by line through the proposal, talked through every single issue and ultimately came to an overall consensus,” she said.

The Illinois Senate unanimously passed Senate Bill 7 in April, and the Illinois House of Representatives passed the bill 112-1-1 one month later.

Just before the House vote, all three teachers unions withdrew their support. The Chicago Teachers Union claims Section 12(b) of the bill contains language that would strip teachers’ collective bargaining rights and weaken the Illinois Labor Relations Board. This board currently has jurisdiction over teacher contracts but would lose the power to investigate unlawful labor practices under the new law, according to the union’s website.

The CTU claims Stand For Children was most likely responsible for adding the controversial language in Section 12(b), but McClelland strongly denied Stand For Children was involved in doing so.

“We were all at the table in good faith and are currently working with the stakeholders on clean-up language to reflect some of the concerns raised,” she said.

New negotiations are underway for a “trailer bill.” This follow-up legislation would make appropriate fixes and necessary tweaks to the already-passed bill.

Luft said the controversial language does not affect District 65.

“The current dispute over the bill pertains to Chicago,” she said. “We are pleased with the bill as it applies to Evanston.”

The governor’s office has not yet received the original bill from the legislature. When it does arrive, political insiders believe Gov. Quinn will sign it.

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