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updated: 4/17/2011 5:57 PM

Illinois leads way in education reform

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Now this is how state government should work. All sides of an issue getting together and working out a plan in which everyone gives a little in order for the state's residents, taxpayers and, in this case, children, to get a lot.

Imagine Illinois, not long ago a laughingstock, now being the envy of our neighboring states. It was only a couple of months ago that Wisconsin and Indiana legislators were hiding out in our cities while protesters descended on their state capitols, some fighting efforts to eliminate collective bargaining rights for public employees and others demanding change. No compromises were in the offing.

But in Illinois, all sides were at the table for months, and last week a compromise was reached to significantly change the rules governing public schoolteachers.

Is the reform package perfect? Probably not. But it will pave the way for a better system for our schools and, in the end, help get the best teachers in the classrooms. And that's what is important.

"Under these changes, students will always get the best teacher and the best teachers can be assured of retention, even in hard economic times," said former GOP Gov. Jim Edgar, co-chair of Advance Illinois, an educational reform group that helped to broker the deal.

The teacher unions signed off on these changes, realizing that what happened in Wisconsin and other Midwestern states could come home to roost here.

"It made all the parties more cognizant that everyone was going to have to come away with less than their ideal on some issues. but at the end of the day, this thing was too important to not come to agreement," said Illinois Education Association President Ken Swanson.

And with that, school districts across the state now can let teachers go based on performance rather than length of service. Underperforming tenured teachers could be fired more easily. And teachers would have to wait longer to strike if contract talks break down, with mediation and "fact-finding" on the issues required first. In addition, transparency in the negotiations would be required, with publicity about each side's last, best offers required.

We think these are significant and common-sense reforms. We urge House Speaker Michael Madigan to move this bill through and not let it get so bogged down with changes that it no longer is a compromise that both sides can live with. And then we urge Gov. Pat Quinn to sign it and allow our local school districts to keep the best teachers in the classrooms despite the hard times many of our districts are experiencing.

Many of the school board members we interviewed for the recent local elections agreed changes were needed on tenure, hiring and firing decisions. As they begin new terms, this bill, if passed, should go a long way to help.