Illinois’ New Teacher Law: Model for Other States, or Outlier?

By Sean Cavanagh — June 13, 2011 5 min read
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Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn today signed into law a sweeping measure that has the potential to significantly reshape the teaching profession in his state by linking educators’ tenure, hiring, and job security to performance, rather than to seniority.

Educators and advocates have spent months debating the importance of Senate Bill 7. Does it go far enough? Will it drive improvements in teacher quality and classroom instruction?

This much is clear: The process used to approve the measure in Illinois, a state dominated by Democrats, stands in sharp contrast to the harder-edged approach taken in Republican-dominated states, such as Wisconsin, Ohio, and Idaho by leaders who have waged public battles with teachers’ unions.

That contrast could prove a defining issue in coming state and national elections. Democrats—most notably two Illinois natives, President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan—have called for cooperation between unions and policymakers. Republicans like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Ohio Gov. John Kasich have battled labor groups in supporting laws they argued were necessary to bring down costs for school districts and taxpayers.

Which approach will prove more successful? We may not know for some time. Several aspects of Illinois’ new law, and a separate teacher-evaluation measure approved by the state last year, will prove tricky to implement.

In Wisconsin, a measure approved by Gov. Walker and GOP lawmakers, which restricts the collective bargaining rights of teachers and many other public workers, is now being challenged in court.

In Ohio, Gov. Kasich and fellow Republicans backed a law that curbed collective bargaining powers of teachers and changed how they are paid, drawing a hostile reaction from unions. Opponents of Ohio’s measure are now pushing to overturn that law through a referendum. And let’s not forget Idaho, where a package of laws that phase out tenure and restrict bargaining powers also face a ballot challenge.

More Work to Come

The path taken in Illinois was different from the get-go.

Key state lawmakers and education advocacy groups negotiated over the thorniest provisions with teachers’ unions outside of public view. And when the measure came before the Democratically-controlled legislature, it passed overwhelmingly, with votes of 59-0 in the Senate and 112-1 in the House.

Not everything about the law’s passage was harmonious. The Chicago Teachers Union backed away from its endorsement of the legislation over objections to a number of provisions, including one that requires 75 percent of teachers in their district to vote in favor of a strike to bring about a work stoppage. Two other unions, the Illinois Education Association and the Illinois Federation of Teachers, have thrown their support behind the measure.

Unlike some states, which are doing away with teacher tenure, Illinois’ law will keep it, but set clearer standards for what it takes to obtain it.

Teachers would be required to receive strong performance reviews through the evaluation system the state approved last year and which is currently under development. Teachers who achieve the highest marks can receive accelerated tenure; the law will also make it easier for teachers to transfer their tenure status to a new district, if they move.

On the flip side, the law makes it easier to remove an educator from the classroom for continuously poor performance.

The law also gives local school boards much greater authority in dismissing teachers for poor conduct, and for performance. Yet the measure also requires newly elected school board members to undergo “professional development leadership training” in areas including education, labor law, financial oversight.

In addition, the law seeks to make the collective bargaining process more transparent, by requiring that both sides’ last, best offers be published. That provision applies to districts outside of Chicago; for those in the city, the bill encourages the union and district to enter a mediation, and if no agreement is reached, it requires that the source of the disagreement be made public. The law continues to allow teachers to strike, but in Chicago, it requires that at least 75 percent of the union’s members agree to a work stoppage for it to occur.

Bipartisan Punch

One of the measure’s backers is Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who spoke favorably of a provision that will make it easier to lengthen the school day.

“This legislation will help ensure that Chicago has the tools we need to give our children the education they deserve,” the mayor said in a statement.

Duncan and Obama have called for unions and policymakers to work through tough education issues together and have criticized the approach used by Walker in Wisconsin.

The education secretary, in a statement issued with the bill signing, said the Illinois proposal’s success showed the futility of the bellicose approaches taken in some states.

“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,” Duncan said. “Illinois has created a powerful framework to strengthen the teaching profession and advance student learning in Illinois. This is an example that I hope states across the country will follow.”

Robin Steans, the executive director of Advance Illinois, which backed the legislation, predicted that other states would look to the new Illinois law and the approach used in craftng it for guidance. Skeptics will look at the widespread support for the law “and assume that we must not have gotten that much done,” she said. “That’s not the case.”

Teachers’ unions have traditionally aligned themselves with Democrats in state and federal elections. But Steans said Democratic lawmakers’ early embrace of the measure, and their unwillingness to back away from it, was crucial to its passage.

“It sends a signal to everybody that this is going to happen,” she said, “and that it’s better to be a part of it, than not.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.