CTU calls bill language ‘atomic bomb’

May 5, 2011

By Kristen McQueary

A sweeping school bill that reformers lauded as a landmark and that United States Secretary of Education Arne Duncan described as a national model is hitting snags in the Illinois House.

The measure, which the Illinois Senate passed unanimously last month, was the result of months of backdoor negotiations among some of the state’s most powerful interests--teachers unions, business groups and an out-of-state education group bankrolled by some of the country’s wealthiest political contributors.

The bill marked a rare give-and-take among the competing interests. It had the blessing of three labor groups — the Illinois Education Association, Illinois Federation of Teachers and Chicago Teachers Union – along with two reform groups, Advance Illinois and Stand for Children. Business groups signed off. School administrators approved. Senators gave it a green light.

But as the bill heads to the House, one major stakeholder, the Chicago Teachers Union, is raising a red flag. Pushback from rank-and-file members against union president Karen Lewis, who supported the bill, led to a vote Wednesday night threatening to withhold their endorsement if language regarding collective bargaining is not changed.

The union’s lawyer, Robert Bloch, called a two-sentence section of the bill an “atomic bomb” that strips teachers of some of their bargaining rights. CTU officials said that section was a last-minute addition and was not agreed to earlier at the bargaining table.

But others said the impasse can likely be resolved in the House.

“I don’t believe there is any legitimate basis for CTU to be pulling their support,” said Darren Reisberg, general counsel and deputy superintendent for the Illinois State Board of Education, who helped draft the bill. “Everyone was at the table and has expressed support, and nobody should be backing off that position. Everyone did that very consciously.”

In another possible blow to the legislation, House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) is considering an amendment that would shift the cost of teacher pensions, a move that could torpedo the bill’s chances, according to two sources familiar with the confidential talks. The sources requested anonymity because they remain involved in the negotiations.

The amendment would require school districts to levy a separate property tax for teacher pensions, the sources said. The move would shift the burden from the state to local taxpayers. Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago) introduced the concept in February.

“We’re all familiar with the inadequate funding of the state pension systems,” Madigan told House members earlier this year. “[It’s] tough decision-making, telling people you’re not going to get everything you thought you were going to get, telling people you may have to pay in more. Not easy stuff. So we all better get ready for it.”

Whether Madigan tinkers with the bill remains to be seen. He is holding it in the House for now—knowing it’s something Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel needs to lengthen the Chicago school day—and possibly to use it as leverage for the intense horse-trading that occurs in the final days of the legislative session, the sources said.

The bill arrived in the House after education stakeholders spent four months meeting quietly on it in a Capitol conference room accessible only by private elevator. Through skillful mediation by the bill’s architect, State Rep. Kimberly Lightford, a Democrat from Maywood, school reformers and union leaders managed to write substantive legislation and avoid the kind of collective-bargaining crisis that Wisconsin experienced.

The bill puts greater focus on teacher performance instead of seniority with regard to layoffs. It would give Emanuel the authority to lengthen the Chicagoschool day. It requires school board members statewide to undergo special training, and it slows the process leading up to teacher strikes.

Tweaking the bill’s language in the House could unravel the bill, observers said.

“Obviously, when you have a bill like this with so many moving parts, there’s a balance,” said Robin Steans, executive director of Advance Illinois, a Chicago-based advocacy group. “You don’t want to make any major changes that would throw that out of whack.”

Advance Illinois and Stand for Children worked toward many of the same goals, although they came from different places.

Advance Illinois, a group with Chicago ties, has worked to remove seniority as the foundation for teacher layoffs. Stand for Children, led by Oregon activist Jonah Edelman, burst onto the political scene last summer, pumping more than $600,000 into Illinois’ legislative races. The group hired some of Springfield’s most influential lobbyists and recruited Lightford’s chief assistant to represent their interests at the negotiating table.

“I was uncomfortable initially with the fact they thought they could come to our state and drive our education system after many of us had been engaged in trying to improve it for many years,” Lightford said. “It’s like someone coming in at this point and telling me how to be a good mother. It’s like, ‘Hey, where were you when he was born? Where were you during the labor process?’ ”

Lightford kept negotiators on a tight leash during the sensitive talks, knowing public posturing by any of the groups could destroy the goodwill necessary to produce a compromise bill.

“I had to have, on a number of occasions, conversations that started the meetings like this: ‘Are we all here in good faith to negotiate what’s best for the student? Do we want to create a better educational system in Illinois? If you do, you should stay and negotiate. If you don’t, you shouldn’t come back to the next meeting,’ ” Lightford said.

She and others are nervous about what the House--or Chicago Teachers Union--might do to alter the delicate deal.

“Senate Bill 7 is a very good bill,” Lightford said. “If there is some tweaking, it should be minor. Some of the groups are wanting to possibly make some changes. It would be detrimental.”

Kristen McQueary reports on state government  for WBEZ and the Chicago News Cooperative.