Illinois made national news last week — shockingly — for doing something right. A newly passed education reform bill mandates changes in a number of important areas.
An education reform bill that has drawn national attention and praise has been approved by the Illinois General Assembly.
Passed unanimously by the Illinois Senate in mid-April and by the Illinois House Thursday with just one dissenting vote, the bill being touted as landmark legislation is on its way to Gov. Pat Quinn's desk. He should promptly sign the legislation and get this experiment under way.
But a measure of skepticism is in order. While it's no surprise that those who have been working so hard on this bill are bragging about its virtues, it remains to be seen if the changes this legislation mandates will make any real difference in the education of those most in need — children who come from impoverished homes and fractured family backgrounds.
There is no question, however, that the bill mandates major changes in a variety of important areas, including making it more difficult for teachers to go on strike, making it easier for school districts to dismiss poorly performing teachers, allowing school districts to decide layoffs of teachers based on merit rather than length of employment, toughening up the teacher evaluation process and setting stricter standards for granting tenure.
Teachers' unions were on the defensive in the lengthy negotiations that led to the agreed legislation, and they made major concessions in order to protect their right to strike.
While many of the changes are directed at teachers, it's important to remember that they are hardly the biggest problem in the schools, at least in the central Illinois area.
Most teachers are dedicated professionals who want the best for their students and are willing to sacrifice considerably to achieve that goal.
That said, however, there are better ways of doing business, and that is what this bill aims to achieve.
The legislation was driven by a curious coalition of Chicago-area politicians terrified by the possibility of a teachers' strike there next year. Senate President John Cullerton and House Speaker Michael Madigan made it clear last December that they intended to pass legislation addressing this issue, a move that gave added clout to the business and reform groups promoting the legislation.
Teachers' unions were drawn to the negotiating table because they realized it was in their interest to work out the best deal they could get rather than be stuck with an unacceptable fait accompli.
The talks were complicated by the politics that inevitably affects public policy in Illinois — teachers' union influence on individual legislators. That's why it was so important that all the parties agree on the deal. That unanimity was maintained until the very end when leaders of the Chicago teachers' union denounced the agreement they had embraced earlier because of blow-back over the strike issue.
The legislation bars a teachers' strike in Chicago unless at least 75 percent of the union members, rather than a simple majority, authorize a walkout. The 75 percent rule applies only in Chicago.
Elsewhere, the strike rules were revised to mandate lengthy notice and a series of public steps be taken, including public disclosure of union and management offers, before teachers can walk out.
The education reform debate in Illinois drew the attention of outsiders. The Wall Street Journal ran an article on the bill this week, and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, the former head of the Chicago school system, described the bill as "truly remarkable." Illinois groups that supported the legislation say they have been contacted by officials from other states who want to pass similar measures.
There is no way to overstate the potential importance of this issue. It's vital to success in life for children get a good education. Too many of them, for a variety of reasons, do not and flounder as adults.
This bill is aimed at helping to pull more children out of the morass in which, through no fault of their own, they find themselves. Here's hoping the bill is as good as its proponents claim.