Illinois education reform getting attention

2011-05-15T00:00:00Z Illinois education reform getting attentionBy Benjamin Yount Illinois Statehouse News nwitimes.com
May 15, 2011 12:00 am  • 

SPRINGFIELD | Gov. Pat Quinn's desk is the next destination for the state's education reform measure, but the governor may not be the last stop.

Illinois lawmakers and education advocates say the reforms, which passed the Illinois House, 112-1, Thursday, could become a national model.

Robin Steans, executive director for Advance Illinois, whose website bills the group as an independent voice to promote the public education system in Illinois, said she watched the vote in Springfield, but knows top officials in Washington, D.C., were watching, too.

"The United States Department of Education has been following this closely. And my understanding is that the president was interested in how the vote went today," Steans said.

Steans said she's been answering calls for weeks from education advocates in other states as to how they can copy Illinois' path to education reform.

The reforms make it tougher for teachers' unions to strike. Seventy-five percent of teachers would have to vote to go out on the picket line. The plan also would make it easier to fire teachers by streamlining the process. Supporters say the two-year process to fire a teacher would be condensed to three to four months.

Chicago schools will see a longer school day and longer school year because of the new measure. Chicago's public school day runs from 9 a.m. until 2:45 p.m., one of the shortest in the country. Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel has said he wants to add at least an hour to the day.

Ken Swanson, president of the Illinois Education Association, a Illinois teacher unions with 133,000 members, said the real take-away from Illinois' reforms was the way that all sides - lawmakers, schools, unions and advocates - worked together.

"Look at what happens when everyone can come together at the table and talk," Swanson said. "That's something that colleagues in other states have not been given the opportunity to do."

State Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia, D-Aurora, said Illinois should get credit for coming to an agreement without protests and runaway lawmakers.

"You have Wisconsin, the drastic one end," Chapa LaVia said. "And Illinois where we got it together as Democrats."

Chapa LaVia said she expects to hear folks from Illinois talking about that on Capitol Hill sooner rather than later.

"You'll see some of our people going to Washington and testifying in front of (the U.S. Department of Education) and Arne Duncan, seeing how we got this done. Seeing how to maybe duplicate this in other states," Chapa LaVia said. Duncan is the U.S. secretary of education.

Steans could be Illinois' educational advocate on the panel. But she warned that no one should be looking for a cookie-cutter solution from Illinois' reforms.

Collin Hitt with the Illinois Policy Institute said question remains unanswered, even in Illinois, and everyone should wait a bit before trying to export the "Illinois model."

"Political consensus is less important than policies that actually work for kids," Hitt said.

Hitt noted Quinn has yet to sign the legislation, though all signs are he will.

IPI is a nonpartisan research organization that supports free-market principles and liberty-based public policy initiatives in the state, according to its website.

"If Governor Quinn signs this into law, then we can say that a Democratic Legislature and a Democratic governor did something that was unexpected a year ago," Hitt said.

But state Rep. Roger Eddy, R-Hutsonville, said these education reforms should not be all that unexpected. He said Illinois started on the road to reform as part of the federal Race to the Top program. The state never saw the $500 million from the Obama administration pilot program that awarded grants to states for innovative, comprehensive educational reforms.

Eddy agreed a bit with Hitt, saying Illinois needs to actually implement the education reforms before the state can "spike the football."

The only "no" vote came from state Rep. Monique Davis, D-Chicago, who said she could not support a plan that could weaken the Chicago Teachers' Union.

"I'm not going to be a union buster," Davis said. "Especially starting in my own city."

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