Updated at: 12:18 am on 5/13/11
In a year when Wisconsin lawmakers have clamped down on union members' bargaining rights, Illinois legislators passed a measure that makes it harder for teachers unions to go on strike.
But in Illinois, that happened with the unions' consent.
The unions, as well as education advocates, school boards and administrators all signed on to the carefully negotiated measure that was passed by the house Thursday and is now on its way to the governor's desk.
Representative Jehan Gordon, a Peoria Democrat, said it's a first step toward ensuring Illinois children receive the best education.
"Many of the things that we are seeing around the country right now, you find it very difficult for governmental bodies and labor to come together, at the table, and have some of these hard, difficult conversations and find a collective compromise,” said Gordon.
Schools will be able to more easily dump poor-performing teachers, even if they have seniority. Teachers will have to earn ratings of “proficient” and “excellent” in order to earn tenure. And the package allows Chicago Public Schools to lengthen the school day and requires teachers and districts make their contract negotiations public during bargaining disputes.
The bill took months to negotiate. Advance Illinois, an education policy group made up of business and civic leaders, was pushing for many of the changes governing seniority and tenure, as was the out-of-state group Stand for Children.
Robin Steans, Advance Illinois’ executive director, said the legislation is significant nationally both for what it mandates and for the fact that it was worked out with the support of teachers unions.
“I’m getting calls from my colleagues all around the country about this,” said Steans, who was in Springfield for the vote. “They want to see the language. They want to know how we got at this….[Illinois is] part of a bigger national conversation. I think it’s fair to say we just jumped to the head of the pack. We got really good, hard stuff done but we got it done without a lot of drama and a lot of noise and a lot of fighting.”
Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis helped write the bill, but she says unions essentially had a gun to their head. If they hadn’t come to the table, things could have been much worse, Lewis said.
“There’s Wisconsin, there’s Indiana, there’s Pennsylvania, Ohio. This is going nationwide. We’re trying to ameliorate some of the worst parts of what that bill had.”
The state’s two largest unions lauded the negotiated legislation as “good for kids, fair to adults” when it was first unveiled in mid-April. The state senate passed it then 59-0.
But after initially agreeing to support the law, the more strident Chicago Teachers Union now is balking over what some call technicalities but what Lewis says are attacks on collective bargaining rights.
“We want to be a part of what helps kids,” said Lewis. “But the attack on our collective bargaining does not help kids. Anyone who says it does is not being honest.” Lewis is upset about a provision that could impact a lawsuit the union has against Chicago Public Schools over massive teacher layoffs last summer. She’s also fighting over how many CTU members would be needed to authorize a strike. Negotiations to resolve those issues are continuing.
Chicago mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel praised the legislation, as did U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.
Governor Pat Quinn has said he would sign the historic legislation.