A year in review: 2011 Education Reform Act

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Even before taking office in May 2011, Mayor Rahm Emanuel was working with education advocacy groups on what would become the cornerstone of his first 90 days in office—a reform bill that would permanently change the landscape of education in Chicago.

The bill, sponsored by state Sen. Kimberly Lightford (D, 4th), was signed into law June 13, 2011 by Gov. Pat Quinn as the 2011 Education Reform Act.

The act, which sailed through both chambers of the Legislature as SB0007, amended the Illinois School Code as well as the Illinois Labor Relations Act. It won an unanimous vote in the Senate of 59-0 and 112-1 in the House. Representative Monique Davis, a former Chicago Public Schools educator, was the only legislator to vote against the bill, as she did not want to support any “union busting” legislation.

The driving force behind the 2011 Education Reform Act was Portland, Ore.-based Stand for Children, with a mission to ensure all children, regardless of their background, graduate from high school prepared for, and with access to, a college education. The organization’s major funders include some of the most influential players in education reform, including the Walton family (founders of Wal-Mart) and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The bill was part of Stand for Children’s coordinated legislative effort impacting ten states: Arizona, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas and Washington. The organization put up $600,000 of their own money and raised another $3 million to draft legislative proposals, lobby the legislature and organize public support to win significant concessions from the states’ teachers unions.

Stand for Children worked closely with a number of Illinois players, including Mayor Emanuel, Advance Illinois, the State Board of Education, Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Teacher’s Union.

The bill brought about a number of sweeping changes, including the erosion of union collective bargaining and striking rights; making performance the primary criterion for teacher retention instead of seniority; streamlining the process to fire teachers with unsatisfactory ratings and granting CPS the authority to extend the length of the school day without agreement from the teacher’s union.

The legislation, developed in part to avoid teacher strikes, includes a provision for the Chicago Teachers Union to have approval from 75 percent of its membership to authorize a strike. Before the legislation was passed, CTU only needed 51 percent of voting members before proceeding to the next step to authorize a strike. The State Legislature requires a simple majority of members present to advance legislation, and 60 percent to override a gubernatorial veto.

In spite of this unusually high bar, more than 90 percent of CTU membership voted to authorize a strike before the close of the 2012 school year. The CTU House of Delegates recently voted to give their president, Karen Lewis, the authority to give CPS a 10-day notice of a strike. This is the last step before going on strike.

While a recent fact-finding report was rejected by both sides, the arbitrator’s findings strongly favored the CTU, recommending a 35 percent raise over four years, as opposed to 2 percent over two years proposed by CPS. CTU’s original salary proposal was 30 percent over four years, in an effort to recoup lost income stemming from a CPS board vote to cancel raises that were included in the contract that expired June 30. The board exercised its prerogative to cancel raises for economic reasons. The arbitrator also chided CPS for insisting on a longer day without providing funds to pay for it. Major points of negotiation include teacher evaluation and pay, working conditions and quality of the extended day, class size and job security.

Under the old system, in the event of layoffs caused by economic downturns, teachers with the least seniority were more likely to be let go first. Under the new law, the primary criterion for layoffs is performance.

Starting with the 2012-2013 school year, CPS will use a new teacher evaluation system, based on the Charlotte Danielson framework, which considers student achievement gains. In five years, student achievement will account for 50 percent of the teacher evaluation. While the system was developed with input from the Chicago Teachers Union, it has not agreed to the assessment tool in its current format. The CTU has provided counter proposals that will give teachers due process to appeal unsatisfactory ratings. There is a concern that teachers, particularly those teaching in high poverty areas, will be held accountable for student performance that is heavily impacted by socio-economic factors over which they have no control.

“We are very disturbed that the reforms that have taken root over the past few years have effectively pushed out veteran teachers in favor of younger teachers,” said Rosita Chatonda, president of Chicago Alliance of Urban School Educators (CAUSE). The educator-led advocacy group focuses on improving student outcomes and protecting the rights of displaced teachers.

“We believe that the new teacher rating system could negatively impact experienced teachers, particularly African-Americans who are more likely to work in schools located in areas of concentrated poverty,” she said.

Chatonda noted that, even before the new rating system goes into effect, more than 70 percent of teachers receiving unsatisfactory performance ratings are African-American.

Chatonda agreed that school reform is necessary, but she said the implementation has had an adverse impact on African-American teachers and students. She noted the percentage of African-American teachers in CPS dropped from 54 percent in the late 90’s to 19.6 percent in 2011.

Between 2010 and 2011 alone, the percentage of African-American teachers went from 29.6 percent to 19.6 percent. Chatonda also said since 2000, CPS has lost more than 50,000 African- American students who can’t be accounted for in the transfer or dropout statistics.

“We think we will see a greater loss next year, as a result of school turnarounds and closings and implementation of the new teacher evaluations,” she said.

Another source of contention is the fact that the 2011 Education Reform Act was implemented without input from the Local School Councils. By law, LSC’s are responsible for hiring principals, reviewing annual budgets and supporting the implementation of school improvement plans for the local schools. Changes brought about by the act, such as length of school days and year, impact school budgets, curriculum and school climate–all of which are addressed in the budget and planning process overseen by the LSC’s.

“The way SB-7 was implemented shows that we really need an elected school board,” Dwayne Truss, a West Side community activist said.

“We need people on the board who represent local communities, and will analyze proposals and their impact to the schools to see if they will add to or detract from the learning environment.”

Truss said he believes an elected school board would have been less likely to negotiate legislation without input from a broader base of stakeholders.

“Our next step will be to educate the electorate regarding the importance of having an elected school board,” he said.

The Chicago Teachers Union did not respond to requests for comment, and representatives from Chicago Public Schools were unable to provide comment in time for publication.

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