SPRINGFIELD -- Illinois teachers would find it harder to strike and easier to lose their jobs for poor performance under an agreement announced Wednesday by lawmakers and education groups.
Two major teachers' unions called the deal historic. It would result in "the best teachers with the most experience teaching our kids," said the Illinois Education Association and the Illinois Federation of Teachers.
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Sen. Kimberly Lightford, who led months of negotiation, said the legislation could see a Senate vote as early as Thursday.
She said the deal would make it harder for teachers to strike, protect instructors from layoff based on performance instead of seniority, make it less cumbersome for school boards to fire underperforming teachers, and raise the bar for teachers to attain job-protecting tenure.
"If you have more highly qualified teachers, then your students have better opportunity to receive a highly qualified education," said Lightford, a Democrat from Maywood.
The final roadblock to an agreement was over teachers' right to strike.
Teachers' unions held tightly to the option if contract negotiations break down, but reformers, such as Stand for Children, a group that burst on the scene last fall with heavy campaign contributions in the fall election, said even the threat of strikes hamstrings school districts.
The agreement lengthens the period between contract-talk deadlocks and walking the picket lines, requiring mediation and "fact-finding" on the issues by outsiders, followed by publicity about each side's last, best offers. If all fails, three-quarters of all Chicago teachers would have to vote for a strike before the group walks out. A simple majority remains the standard for instructors outside Chicago.
The current system puts too much pressure on school boards and superintendents to cave in to avoid a walkout, said Rep. Roger Eddy, R-Hutsonville, a local school superintendent.
"It puts you in a position of pressure and what's good about this addition is the public is going to be informed," Eddy said. "The public being informed about what the last, best offers are, and those being out there, might affect whether they take that step (strike), and it's the public they're going to have to answer to."
However, Eddy would not commit to the agreement until he sees the language of the bill as it wends through the Senate.
Stand for Children's Illinois policy director, Jessica Handy, said the pact ensures that thousands of good teachers are rewarded for performance and bad ones are on notice that they need to step it up.
"We have a really strong package of education reforms that will improve schools in Illinois," Handy said. "There are several components to this bill, any one of which would be historic. It's extremely significant."
Other key provisions include considering performance, credentials and relative experience over seniority in making layoff decisions. The proposal shortens the time it takes to fire a tenured teacher for conduct or poor evaluations without, supporters say, violating due process rights.
Obtaining tenure still takes four years, but a teacher must be evaluated as "excellent" or "proficient" in two of those years, including the last one. Superior teachers also would have to wait less time to be tenured in a new district if they switch jobs.
"We were successful in making sure experience and performance are respected. We have made the process for teacher dismissal more efficient and fair," said the statement from the teachers' unions.