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 Politics

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.

We 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 year:

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. 

Lengthy Campaign for Change

There is another significant difference between Illinois and Ohio: The Prairie State overhauled the state’s teacher evaluation system over 16 months ago, and SB 7 builds on top of those reforms. Stand for Children’s 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.

Jamie Davies O'Leary
Jamie Davies O'Leary is a Senior Ohio Policy Analyst at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. She works with a coalition of high-performing Ohio charter school networks, facilitating their advocacy efforts and providing research and technical assistance.