Illinois' reforms taking placing in dramatically different context than Ohio's

 The Prairie State has captured attention
for its recent overhaul of policies governing teacher tenure, transfer, and
dismissal. Senate
Bill 7
– which has yet to make its way through the Illinois House of
Representatives – is significant in that it not only passed unanimously
in the Illinois Senate (59-0) but also was introduced by a Democrat (Sen.
Kimberly Lightford) and garnered the support of the Illinois Federation of
Teachers, the Illinois Education Association, and the Chicago Teachers Union.

The substance of SB 7 is good news for schools and students
– it ends last in, first out layoffs and allows teachers’ seniority to only
serve as a “tie breaker” after performance is considered; gets rid of forced
(seniority-based) transfers; and ties dismissal and tenure to meaningful
performance reviews. (It also makes the Chicago Teachers Union’s ability to
strike contingent on 75 percent approval by membership. For more details, read
a summary
of the bill by the reform group Advance Illinois.) But what’s more notable than
the bill’s details is the broad bipartisan support it earned, the political
process behind its passage, and the lessons this bears for Ohio – where similar
teacher personnel changes are being passed but in dramatically different fashion.

Prairie State

For starters, it’s worth pointing out that the political
situation in Illinois is quite different from that in Ohio, where unions have
wholly rejected teacher policy reforms. The Buckeye State passed a bill ending
LIFO, streamlining teacher dismissal procedures, and putting performance
metrics in place that would supersede seniority – yet a quick glance at local
and national news coverage would seem to belie the fact that Ohio has reforms
worth celebrating. The obvious reason is that teacher personnel reforms are
couched in the controversial collective bargaining bill, Ohio’s Senate Bill 5.
Contrast this with Illinois Education Associate President Ken Swanson’s statement
regarding his union’s support of similar changes: “You don’t need to attack
collective bargaining rights. It should be recognized that unions have a great
deal to bring to the table in shaping reforms that work.”

But it’s not just the messaging behind each set of bills
that’s different (with Illinois’s original “Performance Counts” legislation
sounding emphatically more pro-teacher than Ohio’s collective bargaining
rollback). Other political factors were at play. Andy Rotherham, former
domestic policy advisor to President Clinton, points out about SB 7’s unanimous
passage in the Illinois Senate:

While the narrative is all about
collaboration, it’s important to note the context in which that collaboration
happened – the teachers unions were boxed in because legislation was going to
move and there was a lot of pressure on key elected players.

And in reading the official response from Chicago
Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, the union’s negotiating position does
seem precarious:

In an unprecedented effort, the
three unions… joined forces to stop these millionaires from turning teaching
into a low-wage, high turnover job.

successfully made the case that the right to strike, seniority, due process and
a solid evaluation system all play an integral role to make possible the
promise of democracy, equity and quality in public education. Our next
challenge is to ensure that that evaluation under the PERA law being
constructed now is indeed fair and equitable.

PERA, referring to the 2010 Performance Evaluation
Reform Act
that was
passed to make Illinois’s bid for Race to the Top more competitive, laid the
groundwork for SB 7 and is clearly at the top of the unions’ list of concerns.
As education observer Alexander Russo suggested on his blog, cooperation from the state’s
major teachers unions on Senate Bill 7 may represent an attempt to water down
teacher evaluations put in place last

A quick look at the bill
raises several questions about its ability to improve teaching effectiveness
when the time comes for actual implementation: The bill requires
locally-approved teacher evaluation plans in "good faith"
consultation with unions serving on a joint committee with administrators, and
sets a 90 day window after which all bets are off. There’s no hard
requirement that 50 percent of evaluation be based on student
achievement. There's no hard deadline for developing a new
plan. Districts can request a waiver and it will be granted automatically
if the state doesn’t respond within 45 days. 

Campaign for Change

There is another significant difference between Illinois and Ohio:
The Prairie State overhauled the state’s teacher evaluation system over
months ago, and SB 7 builds on top of those reforms. Stand for
policy director noted that “without PERA, it would have been very
difficult to get at a lot of what we did… PERA laid some great
foundation for
what's coming next.”

In contrast, Ohio is pushing hard and fast on teacher personnel
policies, but putting the proverbial cart before the horse when it comes to
ending LIFO, streamlining dismissal, and setting up a merit pay system as
there’s not yet a robust, fair, transparent teacher evaluation system in place.
This is an important lesson for the Buckeye State. Until teachers and their
unions see the roll-out of a meaningful evaluation system that differentiates
varying levels of effectiveness, can the state expect them to follow willingly
on ending tenure, LIFO, or installing merit pay? To what extent does
collaboration a la Illinois matter?

Impact of
Advocacy Organizations

Finally, the experience in Illinois points to the usefulness
of state education advocacy organizations (EAOs) in building momentum for
legislation through months of careful planning and strategy. Advance Illinois
and Stand for Children helped broker three
months worth
of negotiations between all relevant groups and also messaged
SB 7 as part of the state’s charge to “build better schools in Illinois.” A
quick look at the “Performance Counts” website illustrates the how the
messaging behind the campaign matters. The site is user friendly, links into
various social media outlets, and the EAOS have helped build a broad coalition of
supporters. While Ohio has various non-EAOs that conduct important policy work,
research, and some on-the-ground outreach (think School Choice Ohio on
vouchers, and KidsOhio and Fordham on research and policy), Ohio has no
purebred EAO doing the sort of micro-targeting and messaging that might be
necessary to bolster the palatability of Ohio’s teacher reforms.

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