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Article updated: 12/10/2012 5:39 PM

Stand for Children jumps into school pension debate

By Kerry Lester

An influential education reform group that has successfully worked to overhaul school policies in states across the country -- including Illinois -- is now jumping into the debate over pension reform.

Stand for Children, which shelled out more than $200,000 to suburban legislative candidates in both parties during the election, has announced its "contingent support" for having local schools take on some of the state's costs for teachers' pensions.

"When education faces budget cuts, our priority is to protect our most at-risk children," Jessica Handy, policy director at Stand for Children, said in an email blast.

The group, Handy said in an interview, was prompted to take a stand after State Reps. Elaine Nekritz of Northbrook and Daniel Biss of Evanston last week unveiled a plan that would place all newly hired teachers into a system that isn't quite the same pension they have now and isn't quite a 401(k).

"With Nekritz's proposal coming out, we decided it's time to be more vocal," Handy said.

Under that plan, teachers would pay 9.4 percent of their salaries every paycheck toward their retirement account. School districts would pay 6.2 percent into the account.

School districts and some lawmakers oppose the issue, arguing that the cost shift unfairly penalizes the suburbs.

Handy says Stand supports cost-shift proposals from an equity perspective, pointing out that "if you look at your districts that have higher wealth, then the state is on the hook for higher pension benefits."

As the group has looked at looming budget cuts the state must make, Handy said, the group feels "this is probably the most fair place for it to come from."

However, if a cost-shift plan is going to be adopted, Handy said Stand officials want to make sure money saved is reinvested in education.

Among the suburban lawmakers the group supported in their successful bids for re-election, with donations between $5,000 and $50,000, were Biss, Nekritz, Vernon Hills Democratic Rep. Carol Sente, House Republican Leader Tom Cross of Oswego, Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno of Lemont and Hoffman Estates Democrat Fred Crespo.

Handy said the group's next step is to begin calling lawmakers they have established relationships with, on both sides of the aisle, about Stand's position.

Stand was instrumental in passage of a 2011 law that makes getting tenure tougher, requiring high ratings on the last two years of a teacher's evaluation before the privilege is granted.

State government writer Mike Riopell contributed to this report.

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