How education reform passed

Running for re-election in a tight race last fall, state Rep. Keith Farnham received a sizable chunk of his campaign cash — $50,000 of $462,000 — from Stand for Children, an Oregon-based education group seeking sweeping reforms in Illinois.

Shortly after the November election, the group was moving to get changes in place, fast — among them, tougher tenure requirements, limiting teachers' ability to strike, and lengthening the school day in Chicago.

Stand for Children had, after all, successfully worked to overhaul school policies in other states around the country.

But Illinois was not Colorado or Wisconsin, where the power structure made it easier to push laws that weakened union rights. No, Illinois had a Democratic-controlled, union-backed legislature and governor's office.

Farnham, a union painter whose district includes Elgin Area School District U-46, the state's second largest school district next to Chicago, said he could see what was coming down the pike if reforms were rushed — and it wasn't pretty.

“I felt this pressure to hold both sides back from jumping into a ring and start punching each other out,” Farnham said.

Yet, six months later, the sweeping reform package that passed both houses General Assembly unanimously, and has since been signed by the governor, has been hailed as nothing short of groundbreaking.

How could such a thing happen in a state whose chronic dysfunction often places it at the butt of political jokes? And that's known for such union strength?

“The timing was exquisite,” said Robin Steans, director of Advance Illinois, a Chicago-based education think tank.

Following a bit of careful maneuvering from the various players involved, that is.

Illinois teachers were still smarting from the way pension reform was achieved the year before, elevating the retirement age to 67 and cutting benefits for teachers hired after January 2011. This time, they were bound and determined not to be left out of the conversation.

Stand for Children had, with a mixture of the right staffers and money, House Speaker Michael Madigan's ear. Madigan then formed an education committee to examine reforms, with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, including Farnham.

And previous reforms implemented in the state's 2010 failed bid to win federal Race to the Top education stimulus money had laid the groundwork for future reforms.

“While some states are engaging in noisy and unproductive battles around education reform, Illinois is showing what can happen when adults work through their differences together,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told the media.

Yet, it all could have backfired.

Jessica Handy, Illinois policy director for Stand for Children, said initially, the November veto session seemed like an ideal time to get education reform pushed through.

“Income tax issues and pension reform was on everybody's mind,” she said. “So it made sense for us at the time to work on education reform then.”

When hearings were held on the subject of education reform in December, teachers balked.

It was right in the middle of the last week before winter break, when most teachers were finishing up their last days of class before break.

Yet teachers were determined to be heard.

“These kinds of reforms are important, they're substantive,” Ken Swanson, president of the Illinois Education Association, told the Daily Herald in December. “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.”

Unions pushed back on substance and timing during hearings in December.

What they got, Steans said, “was a panel of legislators saying we're going to talk about these issues. Once they got an indication that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle were serious, this wasn't something that they could block or ignore, even if they wanted to.”

So, the state's three major teachers unions — the IEA, the Illinois Federation of Teachers, and the Chicago Teachers Union — joined forces, Chicago's union a bit more reluctantly than the other two.

Elgin Teachers Association Union President Kathy Castle said there was concern among union members that Stand for Children had a sort of “cookie cutter national agenda.”

Many districts, including U-46, Naperville Unit District 203 and Schaumburg District 54, were already well down the road in changing teacher evaluation practices to address firing poor performing teachers and keep good ones, rather than base it nearly entirely on seniority.

Castle said she felt like the state's educational system “was on trial for things we shouldn't have been on trial for.”

And hearing this, Farnham, among others, said he pushed to turn down the burner.

“I thought we needed to start backing away from the idea that we were going to drive it through the lame duck (session),” Farnham said. “This is too important. We ought to hold off, give everybody a chance to come to the table.”

Senate Education Committee leader Kimberly Lightford, a Chicago Democrat, is largely credited for bringing the various sides to the table, and slowing the pace of decision making.

“It forced everyone to come to the table and stay at the table, quit stirring up their memberships,” Handy said.

Farnham, who outside the legislature has facilitated agreements between contractors and labor groups, said it was clear that a new era had dawned.

“The old way of negotiating is hold off, hold off, hold off,” Farnham said. “We're not in the 1940s or 1950s anymore. ... A lot was at stake here.”

As agreements on various issues were reached, state board of education general counsel Darren Riesberg worked behind the scenes, drafting legislation.

“It was such a collaborative process for everything to come together the way it did,” Handy said. It helped that they had, with the exception of Stand for Children, all been at the table the year before, hammering out performance evaluation changes as the state vied for Race to the Top money.

The legislation, which built off the earlier legislation tying student performance to teacher evaluations, requires districts to prioritize teachers' performance, instead of seniority in layoff decisions.

The plan, various components of which are being rolled out between now and 2013, makes tenure tougher, requiring high ratings on the last two years of a teacher's evaluation, before the privilege is granted. Teachers with exceptional reviews could be placed on a fast track to earn tenure within three years instead of four. In turn, teachers with two unsatisfactory evaluations during a seven-year period could have their certificates revoked.

Additionally, more safeguards are put in place before Chicago teachers can strike and school districts across the state are required to make contract negotiations more transparent, publicizing final offers from each side if there is an impasse.

The new mandated evaluation system is loosely based on economist and educational consultant Charlotte Danielson's “Enhancing Professional Practice: A Framework for Teaching,” an evaluation model that the IEA largely regards as one of the best.

“For districts like Naperville 203, Elgin and Schaumburg, early adopters of the framework for teaching, it's good to know that early work that they had done will be affirmed,” said Tim Davis, an Elgin resident who works with the National Education Association Foundation.

The framework, Davis says, not only works to rid districts of bad teachers, but supports good ones.

In the end, th collaboration that led to the reforms could, Handy says, serve as a blueprint for how to work out other pieces of reform within the state.

“People are saying that education reform showed we can do this. This is not only a national model for education but for other difficult issues.”

Donations from Stand for Children How much the educational reform group gave to suburban candidates running for Illinois House and Senate last fall

  Suburban teachers’ right to strike was not taken away in recent education reforms, though the law will make it tougher for Chicago teachers to strike. Above, a strike rally in Gurnee in 2003. Steve Lundy/
  Suburban teachers’ right to strike was not taken away in recent education reforms, though the law will make it tougher for Chicago teachers to strike. Above, teachers walk a picket line in Park Ridge in 2003. Gilbert R. Boucher II/
Daniel White/dwhite@dailyherald.comSuburban teachers’ right to strike was not taken away in recent education reforms, though the law will make it tougher for Chicago teachers to strike. Above, teachers in Palatine picket in 2007.
  Suburban teachers’ right to strike was not taken away in recent education reforms, though the law will make it tougher for Chicago teachers to strike. Above, the Elgin Area School District u46 board met last year to discuss massive layoffs to correct for a budget deficit. PATRICK KUNZER/ ¬