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Illinois Senate passes sprawling education reform bill

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

SPRINGFIELD — A sprawling education-reform package that could lengthen the school year in Chicago, give school districts new powers to oust poorly performing teachers and impose new obstacles on teachers strikes passed the Senate Thursday without dissent.

The Senate’s 59-0 vote on a plan that united teachers unions, reform groups and school boards capped a busy legislative day in which lawmakers rejected a business-backed workers compensation reform package and launched a new crackdown on the state’s cash-strapped prepaid college tuition program.

“This is the reason why I serve in this chamber: It’s for education youth development, giving that child who lives in a poor zip code the same opportunities as a child who lives in a wealthy zip code,” Sen. Kimberly Lightford (D-Maywood) said of her school-reform bill as she choked up with emotion.

The legislation drew backing from Gov. Quinn, who said it “helps us make sure that we have the best teachers in our classrooms and assures effective teacher performance.”

Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel also weighed in in favor of the legislation after the Senate vote.

“The unanimous passage of education reform legislation in the Illinois Senate is a first step in what could be a historic victory for Chicago students. This bill paves the way for essential reforms to Chicago’s public education system,” Emanuel said in a prepared statement.

But the legislation still must pass muster in the House, where Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) advocated in the late 1990s for the outright elimination of teacher tenure and has bottled up attempts to allow teachers to take tenure from job to job as Lightford’s bill allows.

“For my part, I wasn’t willing to agree that this was the version that wouldn’t have any changes. That would be disingenuous,” said Rep. Roger Eddy (R-Hutsonville), a House GOP point person on education.

The Senate-crafted package continues to allow unions to strike in Chicago and the suburbs, but it imposes a requirement that school boards and unions take longer to negotiate and publicly disclose their bargaining positions before a strike can be launched.

In Chicago, no strikes could occur until as long as 120 days after the dispute goes to a special panel — and then, only if the Chicago Teachers Union has given a 10-day notice of a strike and has 75 percent of its bargaining unit members in agreement.

Currently, a strike only requires a simple majority vote.

Lightford’s legislation also would let the Chicago Board of Education lengthen the school day or school year unilaterally, but it would have to negotiate with the Chicago Teachers Union over compensation for its members being in the classroom longer.

“The children in Chicago are going to actually have a full school day and a full school year and no longer have the shortest for both of any major metropolitan areas in the country,” said Sen. Matt Murphy (R-Palatine). “That’s huge not just for Chicago but for the rest of this state.”

Meanwhile, in other action at the Statehouse, the Senate rejected a business-backed workers compensation reform package by a 25-6 vote, with 28 Senate Democrats voting present. Thirty votes were necessary for passage.

The legislation sponsored by Sen. Kyle McCarter (R-Lebanon) would for the first time require injured workers to get a determination that work contributed at least 50 percent toward their injuries before cashing in on a workers comp claim — one of several provisions that caused lawyers, doctors and unions to oppose his bill.

Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago), who said the package could prevent someone with a 30-year-old high-school football injury from qualifying for a worker’s comp claim, vowed to move a package in May that “strikes the right balance for employers andemployees.”

In the House, a push for Auditor General William Holland to do a more intensive audit of the College Illinois pre-paid college tuition program passed 114-0. The $1.25 billion fund is underfunded by 31 percent, raising questions about its ability to pay tuition and fees for 55,000 contract holders.

“We need to restore confidence in the parents and grandparents who made these investments for their children and grandchildren,” said Rep. Jim Durkin (R-Western Springs), who sponsored the audit resolution with Rep. Lou Lang (D-Skokie).

Contributing: Rosalind Rossi

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