Quinn signs landmark education bill

June 13, 2011

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Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn signed a sweeping education overhaul into law Monday morning, paving the way for longer school days for Chicago students and making it harder for teachers to go on strike.

The law also changes the so-called "last hired, first fired" teacher seniority policy that districts used in deciding which educators to lay off. It also makes it easier for districts to fire chronically underperforming teachers.

The bill-signing ceremony at an elementary school in suburban Maywood was more grandiose than usual, complete with a marching bands colorguard team.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who has been a vocal supporter of the bill, touted a provision that would allow him to lengthen the day for Chicago public schools’ students, who he said now have one of the shortest  [school] days in the country.

"We are now gonna have the ability to do what we have denied the kids of Chicago for generation after generation," Emanuel said. "When the governor signs that, that is going to end."

State Sen. Kimberly Lightford, the Maywood Democrat who sponsored the measure, touted the spirit of cooperation between unions, administrators and reform groups during negations.

Lightford acknowledged the new law makes it more difficult for teachers to go on strike, but she cautioned unions and management that such friction isn't good for students

"Transparency is there so all your dirty laundry will be aired out publicly," Lightford said. "No 'behind closed doors.'"

Officials and education reform advocates repeatedly praised the law as a national model, particularly because it was negotiated with relatively little acrimony, even as fights over collective bargaining for public workers have raged in other Midwestern states, such as Wisconsin, Indiana and Ohio.

But notably absent from Monday’s signing ceremony was Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, who had characterized parts of the bill as an attack on teachers' collective-bargaining rights. Lewis did not attend the event because she was "busy focusing on the budget" ahead of a special school board meetin Wednesday, said union spokeswoman Liz Brown.

The union did have problems with the original proposal, but they were resolved when the General Assembly later passed some amendments, Brown said.

"We're glad to be looking forward to actually improving schools as well through lower class sizes and equitable funding," she said.