Monday, June 13, 2011

Quinn signs education reforms

By Jamey Dunn

Seniority will play less of a role in the hiring and firing practices of schools, and teachers will face new requirements to achieve tenure under education reform legislation signed into law today by Gov. Pat Quinn.

“It’s important that we have excellent teachers. That’s the key to getting excellent students. And so we must have education reforms that help us deliver education that’s second to none,” Quinn said at a Maywood press conference. “The most powerful force for equal opportunity for all the boys and girls of our state is a good education.”

Under the new law, teachers have to receive positive evaluations for three years to receive tenure. Teachers who earn “excellent” reviews in each of their first three years will also earn tenure. Teachers with tenure who receive two unsatisfactory reviews within a seven-year period could have their teaching licenses reviewed by the state superintendent and be required to complete professional development geared toward improving their performance or face having their licenses revoked. The measure also makes it easier for districts to fire underperforming teachers.

As part of Illinois’ failed bid for Race to The Top, a competitive federal education grant program, the General Assembly passed a law that requires school districts to revamp the evaluations they use to assess teachers’ work. Half of teachers’ evaluations will be based on student performance, under the new system that starts to kick in at different times for different schools based on size and student performance level. Most schools must switch to the new evaluations by 2016. Under the bill signed today, school districts and teachers' unions could agree to move up the implementation date of the new system to as early as 2013. The new tenure requirements, as well as the consequences for unsatisfactory performance ratings that are part of the education reform package will go into effect once schools switch to the new evaluation system. Other aspects of the reform go into effect immediately.

Layoffs will no longer be decided on a “last-in-first-out” basis, but instead be determined by qualifications and job performance. Seniority will only be used as a “tie-breaker.” Administrators will be free to hire any candidate for new positions instead of giving preference to teachers transferring within the district.

School board members elected after today will be required to receive training approved by the State Board of Education. Sponsor Sen. Kimberly Lightford, a Maywood Democrat, said the law will have a direct impact on the 2 million children in the state’s public schools, as well as the more than 132,000 teachers working at those institutions statewide. “A whole lot's been said about Senate Bill 7. It’s been named landmark, historic, essential tools and a national model. I agree with all of those adjectives.”

New Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel pushed for the passage of the bill. The legislation could allow him to extend the school day in Chicago, something he has called for in the past. "This legislation will help ensure that Chicago has the tools we need to give our children the education they deserve," Emanuel said in a written statement. "By giving students a longer school day and improving the performance standards for teachers, today we take a major step towards ensuring that every child, in every Chicago neighborhood, has access to a world-class education."

Monique Davis, who cast the lone vote against the legislation in the House said aspects of the bill that apply only to Chicago Public Schools, such as a greater threshold for striking that requires the support of a supermajority of voting union members, were discriminatory. “The intentions are good, but the results will not change a thing. I’m not going to be a union buster,” the former teacher and administrator said during floor debate. Unions outside of Chicago will need the support of half of union members to strike. The measure lengthens negotiations required before a strike and would force both sides to release their demands to the public if an impasse is reached.

Negotiations for the reform package started last year and brought together a multitude of interests, including administrators, teachers unions, business groups, parent organizations and reform groups. Out-of-state group Stand for Children emerged as a key player. The organization donated more than $500,000 to Illinois legislative candidates during the last election cycle, giving the majority of the money to Democrats. “There were rumors that this group came into Illinois—Stand for Children. And they’re very wealthy, and they have a lot of money, and they’re going to make us move. So unlike the truth. We were already in the midst of education reform,” said Lightford when the Senate approved a version of the bill, noting the recent reforms the legislature passed as part of the state’s bid for the federal Race to the Top grant program. Lightford said after the state’s loss in the competitive grant program, she decided to take on the goal of creating an education reform package by involving all stakeholders in a process that she called a “big comeback” for the state. “Education, a good education, is a basic civil right,” Lightford said at today’s bill signing.

Illinois’ new law, as well as the collaborative process that created it, has drawn some national attention. ”While some states are engaging in noisy and unproductive battles around education reform, Illinois is showing what can happen when adults work through their differences together,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a written statement. ”Through this very impressive collaboration of school management, teacher unions, education reform advocates, legislators and the governor, Illinois has created a powerful framework to strengthen the teaching profession and advance student learning in Illinois. This is an example that I hope states across the country will follow.”

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