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Braggart angers teachers' union after tough negotiations over reform bill

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Updated: October 25, 2011 12:30AM



Unions and legislators who worked on Illinois’ landmark education reform legislation are upset with an advocate who bragged in Aspen last week that he snookered them into accepting drastic cuts in teacher union’s rights.

“There was a palpable sense of concern if not shock on the part of the teachers’ unions of Illinois that Speaker [of the House Mike] Madigan had changed allegiance and that we had clear political capability to potentially jam this proposal down their throats the same way that pension reform had been jammed down their throats six months earlier,” Jonah Edelman, chair of Oregon-based Stand for Children, said in Colorado last week.

Unions and legislators say they engaged in a collaborative effort in which all sides gave a little in an effort to improve Illinois’ schools. The legislation makes it easier to fire bad teachers; lengthen Chicago’s school days; and makes teacher strikes nearly impossible in Chicago.

But Edelman, son of civil rights crusader Marian Wright Edelman, told attendees at the Aspen Ideas Festival, that, actually, he led a well-funded campaign that used lobbyists and shrewd political gamesmanship to pressure union leaders to give up their rights.

“They essentially gave away every single provision related to teacher effectiveness that we had proposed — everything we had fought for in Colorado,” Edelman said in Aspen. “We hired 11 lobbyists, including four of the absolute best insiders and seven of the best minority lobbyists, preventing the unions from hiring them.”

Since the video of Edelman’s lecture went viral, he apologized for his “arrogance” in claiming his political manipulations alone passed the bill to the exclusion of unions’ contributions. The Illinois Education Association declined his apology.

Legislators and union leaders say they had been moving toward many of these reforms before Edelman arrived from Oregon.

“I understand how politics goes in Illinois — he does not ‘cause he just got here,” said state Sen. Kimberly Lightford (D-Maywood), who shepherded the bill through the Legislature. “He came to two meetings out of 60 or 70, and one of those was crowded, he couldn’t get a seat, so he left early.”

The leaders of Illinois’ three main education unions said in a joint statement Tuesday: “Frankly, Edelman was never actively engaged in that collaborative process. By falsely claiming to have manipulated people engaged in honest negotiations, Stand for Children’s leader jeopardizes the ability of education stakeholders to work collaboratively in the future. ... What’s worse is that these false claims clearly show an organizational agenda that has nothing to do with helping kids learn.”

Illinois Education Association President Ken Swanson wrote on the union’s website that Edelman might have been over-stating his role in the process to impress potential donors: “He is willing to distort and lie to look better to the finite pool of large checkwriters that ‘reformers’ ... have to compete with to get the checks written to them instead of someone else.”

Edelman was recruited to Illinois by Bruce Rauner, a Republican venture capitalist and former client of Mayor Rahm Emanuel who helped make Emanuel a millionaire when Emanuel was an investment banker. Because Rauner is Republican, Edelman said some expected his group to fund Republican candidates.

But Edelman said he realized Madigan was the game in Illinois and so he funded six of Madigan’s Democratic legislative candidates and only three Republicans.

The Illinois Federation of Teachers used to contribute $2 million a year to Madigan’s candidates. But they pulled their money in this most recent election because Madigan backed lower pensions for new teaching hires.

Edelman said he made it clear to Madigan that “We could be a new partner to take the place of the Illinois Federation of Teachers. Luckily, it never got covered that way. That wouldn’t work well in Illinois. Madigan is not particularly well-liked. After the election I went back to Madigan. He said he was supportive. The next day, he created an education reform committee. His political director called to ask for our suggestions of who should be on it.”

There’s is nothing unusual about Madigan’s office reaching out to interest groups for suggestions of who to put on a committee, said Madigan spokesman Steve Brown, adding, “I don’t know anyone that doesn’t like Mike Madigan.”

Lightford said Edelman’s group insisted on nothing less than 75 percent of all union members in Chicago having to vote for a strike — up from 50 percent of those voting. An earlier compromise would have raised it just to 67 percent.

Under the change, “The unions cannot strike in Chicago — they will never be able to muster the 75 percent threshold to strike,” Edelman told the conference in Aspen.

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, who Edelman described as a “diehard militant,” made a “tactical mistake” agreeing to the change in strike rules, he said.

Edelman’s lengthy apologies to the unions said his talk “left children mostly out of the equation when helping children succeed is my mission in life ... It was very unfair to colleagues leading Illinois teachers’ unions, and it could cause viewers to wrongly conclude that I’m against unions.

“I deeply regret that I had an ‘us vs. them’ tone. That tone contradicts my deeply held view that key aspects of the current education system are the problem, not teachers’ unions ... That’s why I’m disappointed in myself for the way I framed the Senate Bill 7 story — a framing that does not reflect the good-faith and substantive negotiations that drove this process on all sides.”

Edelman told attendees in Aspen that his group is in a dozen states now, is branching into eight more, and wants to use what it learned in Illinois in those new states: “Our hope and our expectation is to use this as a catalyst to make changes in other entrenched states.”

CTU spokeswoman Liz Brown contended the new strike threshold is not “insurmountable’’ and predicted bigger teacher turnouts in the future, when not voting for the first time will amount to a “no” vote.

“Although it is not fair that the rest of the state has to reach a 50-plus-one threshold, the CTU will rise to the challenge if needed, if it is a matter that will gravely affect teaching and learning in Chicago,’’ Brown said.

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