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updated: 12/16/2010 8:38 AM

No strikes? Tougher tenure? Lawmakers contemplating school reforms

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  • Elgin Area School District U-46 employees speak out against staffing cuts during a school board meeting in 2009.

       Elgin Area School District U-46 employees speak out against staffing cuts during a school board meeting in 2009.
    PATRICK KUNZER | Staff Photographer

  • The U-46 school board discussed massive layoffs last March in the wake of a budget deficit.

       The U-46 school board discussed massive layoffs last March in the wake of a budget deficit.
    PATRICK KUNZER | Staff Photographer

  • District 211 teachers picket in Palatine in preparation for a possible strike in 2007. Kevin Palmer, center, a Fremd social studies teacher, walks the line.

      District 211 teachers picket in Palatine in preparation for a possible strike in 2007. Kevin Palmer, center, a Fremd social studies teacher, walks the line.
    Daily Herald File Photo

 
By Kerry Lester

Beginning Thursday, hearings are being held on reforming some of the most controversial aspects of public schooling in Illinois.

Eliminating teachers' right to strike is on the list. So is instituting tougher tenure requirements. And looking at performance evaluations alongside seniority when pink slips are being handed out come spring.

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School officials, lawmakers and union members alike agree a serious conversation is needed about potential reforms.

But teachers say they're being left out of the room, as the meetings, being held at Aurora's Illinois Math and Science Academy Thursday afternoon and Friday morning, take place when most teachers are finishing up their last days of class before winter break.

"These kinds of reforms are important, they're substantive," said Ken Swanson, President of the Illinois Education Association. "The voice of teachers is one we have to have. There's a lot of concern whether this timetable and potential action is created to minimize the opportunity for input."

The IEA, along with the Illinois Federation of Teachers, issued a statement Wednesday calling for more hearings across the state throughout January.

State Rep. Roger Eddy, a Hutsonville Republican and chair of the bipartisan committee formed this month by Illinois House leaders, points to the ticking clock on the remaining days of the General Assembly's veto session, which adjourns for the last time in January.

"The urgency has to do with when the General Assembly finishes its work," he said.

Earlier this month, Democratic House Speaker Michael J. Madigan formed the bipartisan eight-member committee, which is co-chaired by Eddy and Linda Chapa LaVia, an Aurora Democrat. Also on the committee is state Rep. Keith Farnham, an Elgin Democrat.

At the center of the committee's discussions is a proposal prepared by education reform groups, which could ultimately be the template for future legislation.

That confidential draft, obtained by the Daily Herald, would add several new provisions to the state school code.

Among them, teachers with frequent negative performance evaluations could have their teaching certificates revoked. The selection of teachers to fill new and vacant positions "shall be made based upon merit and ability to perform in that position without regard to seniority or length of service."

Obtaining tenure would be more difficult, and student growth and learning conditions including teacher salary would be better laid out in school report cards.

Being forced to cut young, hardworking teachers without seniority was an issue many school officials grappled with last spring, as growing budget holes forced districts across the suburbs to make mass layoffs.

"A lot of times your new teachers are the ones who have a lot of energy, proving themselves, volunteering to do all sorts of things," Elgin Area School District U-46 Superintendent Jose Torres said just days before the district laid off more than 700 teachers to help fill a $31 million budget gap in March.

"One of the realizations we need to consider is that perhaps it's not a wise use of training dollars to train first-, second- and third-year teachers and not build a program around a rookie that might not return... There is no way that we can or would say we won't invest any money in you unless you're tenured. But certainly it might be wise for us to think about some sort of change," he said.

Farnham said he spent much of Wednesday talking to Chicago Public Schools' teachers union about concerns.

He said the committee must "find ways to bring the sides and the people together. ... The public is out there going, 'What the heck is going on?' I hear that door to door all the time. People telling me, 'I'm taking my kids out of public school.'"

Swanson said the IEA is "willing to talk about all the components in the proposed legislation," though he noted it is firmly opposed to any changes to teachers' collective bargaining practices.

If reform legislation is ultimately passed by the House, it would then head to the Senate, where it would first be addressed by a similar education reform committee.

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