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State House sends school reform bill to governor’s desk

Updated: June 14, 2011 12:36AM

SPRINGFIELD — The Illinois House Thursday overwhelmingly approved and sent to Gov. Quinn a major education-reform package that U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan heralded as “truly remarkable.”

The measure, which passed the House 112-1 with one member voting present, could lengthen the school year and school day in Chicago, give school districts new powers to oust poorly performing teachers and impose new obstacles to teachers strikes.

“Illinois has done something truly remarkable, and every state committed to education reform should take notice,” said Duncan, Chicago’s former Schools CEO.

“Business, unions, educators, advocates and elected officials all came together around a plan that puts children ahead of adults and paves the way for meaningful education reform. For some time now I have been saying that tough-minded collaboration is more productive than confrontation, and this is the proof,” said Duncan, who called on the governor to sign the “landmark reforms.”

Thursday’s vote came despite last-minute opposition from the Chicago Teachers Union, which balked at language that increased the voting threshold needed for city teachers to strike to 75 percent and did an end run around a pending CTU dispute involving layoffs before a state education panel.

“Of course it isn’t going to solve all the problems of public school students across the state of Illinois, but I think it makes an important step forward when we say, ‘Yes, there will be a connection between the quality of a teacher’s performance and the ability of that teacher to stand in front of that classroom of children,’” said House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie (D-Chicago), a House co-sponsor of the bill.

The bill’s lone opponent was Rep. Monique Davis (D-Chicago), a CTU ally who argued that it was unfair to make it more difficult for city teachers to strike than their suburban and Downstate counterparts.

“I’ve read this bill and know what’s in it. The intentions are good, but the results will not a change a thing. I’m not going to be a union buster, and especially starting with my own city,” Davis said.

Both Quinn and Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel have expressed support for the package, which now heads to the governor’s desk.

Quinn spokeswoman Annie Thompson said the governor intends to review the legislation, which associates predicted he would sign.

“Meaningful education reform has been and is one of Gov. Quinn’s top priorities, which is why he supported and why he worked for the passage of Senate Bill 7,” she said.

On Thursday, Emanuel could barely contain his glee about the one-sided House vote on the school-reform bill that he helped pass.

“Arne Duncan called yesterday. He said, ‘If you get this done, it’s landmark legislation. No other state has ever accomplished this,” Emanuel told the Chicago Sun-Times.

“Chicago kids will no longer be held back by the shortest school day and school year in the country. We finally are going to give the kids school day length and school year length to both achieve academically and have safety,” he said.

The measure 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 of everyone who votes.

The legislation would let the Chicago Board of Education lengthen the school day or school year unilaterally.

It also would empower Downstate and suburban school districts to use performance, not strictly seniority, in determining teacher layoffs and impose first-ever performance benchmarks for teachers to gain tenure.

Under the legislation, tenure would be granted only if a teacher had attained two “proficient” or “excellent” ratings during the last three years of the four-year period required for tenure.

The timeline for dismissing a tenured teacher would be shortened in both Chicago and elsewhere.

“This is just an unbelievably good day for kids in Illinois. We’re turning a corner in how we make decisions in schools,” said Robin Steans, executive director of Advance Illinois, a school-reform group that helped push the legislation.

Currie said she is open to passing follow-up legislation to address the CTU’s concerns about who has voting rights in a strike-authorization vote and about language in the bill that takes the pending layoff dispute out of the hands of the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board.

But so far, Currie said, unions, business groups and reform organizations have not coalesced around a compromise.

CTU President Karen Lewis has already gotten heat from union members about the bill. Said former CTU President Debbie Lynch, “In our opinion, this went down without a fight. ... If it was me, I would have never agreed to the 75 percent threshold. Period.’’

Meanwhile, the bill puts Emanuel in the catbird’s seat before he even takes office.

Said Barbara Radner of DePaul University’s Center for Urban Education, “He’s just been given the tools he needs from the state to be the education mayor ... in a way [Mayor] Daley was never able to.’’

Contributing: Fran Spielman, Rosalind Rossi, Stephen Di Benedetto

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