Strikes a lasting part of Senate Bill 7's legacy?
An education reform package pushed through the state legislature in the spring of 2011 was hailed as nothing short of historic -- among its components, limiting teachers' ability to strike.
Or so its authors thought.
But two years after Senate Bill 7's passage -- and a year after its implementation -- many more strikes are occurring, making them a lasting part of the education reform package's legacy.
Seven suburban school districts have gone on strike this school year, inspired in part by a Chicago Teachers Union walkout in September that was provoked by the new law.
The legislation mandated that 75 percent of Chicago Teachers Union membership must authorize a strike, creating a rallying point for Chicago teachers. Goaded by the idea they would never muster that much support, 90 percent of the highly organized CTU membership ultimately approved a walkout.
"CTU said, 'OK, you put these tough restrictions on us, you pretty much fractured our right to bargain and we were successful in still being able to,'" said state Sen. Kimberly Lightford, a Maywood Democrat who negotiated the reform legislation.
It's a ripple effect of sorts that suburban educators, union officials and lawmakers alike say carried the strike mentality through school districts across the region.
"Now," Lightford said, "you have other groups saying if it worked for them, it'll work for us."
Data from the Illinois State Board of Education shows that only one suburban district in Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake and McHenry counties -- Huntley Unit District 158 -- went on strike from 2004 to 2012.
But in the five months following the Chicago Teachers' Union September strike, Evergreen Park District 124, Lake Forest High School District 115, North Shore District 112 in Highland Park, Prairie Grove District 46 in McHenry, Carpentersville-based Community Unit District 300, West Chicago 33 and Grayslake District 46 have gone on strike.
"There is no question that Chicago's response to the strike component inspired teachers unions across Illinois," said Dan Montgomery, Illinois Federation of Teachers president and a longtime Niles North English teacher. Increased priority on student test results, layoffs due to school budget cuts and aftershocks from the highly publicized passage of anti-union laws in Wisconsin in 2011 have led to "terrible morale among teachers over the last 10 years," he said. That increased the motivation to strike.
Unlike in Chicago, SB7 didn't require suburban teachers unions to get more than 75 percent of their membership to authorize a strike. They needed just a simple majority of voters.
But in West Chicago Elementary District 33, the union would have easily qualified to strike under the stricter regulation.
"I think the Chicago Teachers Union strike gave impetus to all these other ones," said Christine Scheck, District 33 board president. "The Chicago teachers strike gave power to the unions in the district and gave power to the IEA (Illinois Education Association) to direct some of what we've seen. And I'm not alone in that."
Teachers in District 33 went on a three-day strike Feb. 4 -- the first in the union's 52-year history -- citing differences over salaries, health insurance, retirement benefits and teacher evaluation methods. Negotiators had worked more than 16 months to reach an agreement before the strike.
Mary Catherine Kosmach, chief union negotiator for the District 33 teachers union, said their strike had nothing to do with Chicago. The towns share a name but that's it, Kosmach said.
"The bottom line was compromise did not occur until we were on strike," Kosmach said.
She points to what she sees as an unwillingness to compromise by boards of education across the region as an impetus for strikes, more than any rousing effect of what could be deemed a successful strike by Chicago teachers. District 33 teachers stood in solidarity with their colleagues in the Chicago Teachers Union, but Kosmach said the connection stopped there.
In Carpentersville-based District 300, LEAD 300 union President Kolleen Hanetho had a different take.
"I actually think that the movement of other unions to make that step does have a unifying effect on all unions," Hanetho said. "You begin to believe 'OK, we can do this too.'"
LEAD 300 members went on the union's first strike in 40 years Dec. 4. They were back in classes the next day.
The District 300 union also easily surpassed the 75 percent of membership threshold the Chicago Teachers Union needed to strike.
In the face of a threatened strike, SB7 legislated what needed to happen and when. SB7 says that either side may declare an impasse after 15 days of mediation with no resolution. Within seven days of the impasse declaration, both sides must submit their final offers and cost summaries. Seven days after that, those offers get posted on the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board website. Teachers cannot strike under the law until 14 days after the posting.
The new procedures were seen on both sides as a positive increase to transparency, but IFT's Montgomery says that two-week "cooling off period" also provides "nothing that compels them to settle during that time."
SB7 played into negotiating strategies. In District 33, for example, it was the board of education declaring an impasse and forcing both sides to post their last best offers. In District 300, it was the teachers union sticking to the timeline regardless of where they were in negotiations.
In both districts, union and school board representatives said the newly required legal action might have added extra tension to the negotiations. But District 33's Scheck said the school board did what had to be done to reach a deal. Teachers decided to go on strike after the board of education announced it would impose its final offer if no deal was reached by Feb. 21.
In District 300, both sides said along the way that negotiations were not reaching a dead end even though teachers were getting ever closer to a strike. Union leaders said sticking to the law's strike schedule was a must.
"You want to make sure you're not in a situation where they can just impose a contract and you haven't abided by your timeline and you have to sit and wait," Hanetho said.
Besides laying out new rules and procedures for teacher strikes, SB7 changed teacher tenure rights, moving classroom performance and experience above simple seniority in decisions about cutting or refilling positions.
As to the rest of the legislation's legacy, the "guts are still being played out," said Robin Steans, executive director of Advance Illinois, a nonprofit education reform group instrumental in the passage of the reform legislation.
Steans praised other components of the package, including a new teacher evaluation system.
"What I'm hearing as I'm going around is that people are having conversations about instruction that they haven't had for a long time," she said.
However, she noted, "how much does or doesn't take root has to do with how it's managed at the local level."
Those "guts" will continue to play out as contract talks are beginning in a number of other suburban districts. Naperville Unit District 203, and West Chicago High School District 94, for instance, begin negotiations this spring and negotiations in Arlington Heights Elementary District 25 are already under way.
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