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Illinois Bill Exemplifies Groundbreaking Education Reform

State Shows How Collaboration Can Lead to Change

SOURCE: AP/Charles Rex Arbogast

A sixth-grader copies her homework assignment from a list on the board at the Kellogg Elementary School in Chicago. A new bill in the Illinois state legislature protects students from chronically low-performing teachers by streamlining the dismissal process, and it would put in place other reforms to get the most effective teachers in the classroom.

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Over the past few months, ugly battles over teachers’ rights and collective bargaining in states have drawn our attention away from education reform to a false choice between the best interests of teachers and students. But last week the Illinois State Senate passed a bill that was crafted in partnership with teachers’ unions and shows that meaningful reform can take place without pitting stakeholders against one another.

The bill, S.B. 7, ties tenure and dismissal to performance in the classroom, rather than experience, and makes it more difficult for teachers to strike. If passed by the Illinois House—which looks likely—the new law would maintain the existing rights of teachers while addressing the most contentious issues in education—seniority, tenure, dismissal, strikes, and longer school days. Here’s a quick rundown on what it would do.

First, S.B. 7 protects students from chronically low-performing teachers. In the Chicago Public Schools, it can take up to 27 steps to dismiss an ineffective teacher in the traditional dismissal process. That will no longer be the case under the new legislation, which streamlines the dismissal process by allowing the state schools superintendent to suspend or revoke a teacher’s certificate after two unsatisfactory ratings in a seven-year period. This change dramatically minimizes the time students must spend with a chronically low-performing teacher.

Second, the legislation shifts the system’s focus from seniority to performance. It ends the current “last in, first out” policy of firing the newest teachers first, irrespective of performance, during lean budgetary times. Now, a teacher’s subject specialty, performance, and ability will be considered, with years of service used only as a tie-breaker. Principals will have the authority to fill teaching jobs based on ability, experience, and performance, with seniority again used only as a tiebreaker.

Third, teachers will no longer receive tenure automatically after four years in the classroom. Instead, beginning teachers will have to earn at least two “proficient” or “excellent” evaluation ratings during the last three years of the four-year probationary period. There is now potential for teachers who receive excellent ratings during their first three years to gain tenure in three years instead of four.

Fourth, the legislation reduces the period of time for school boards to dismiss tenured teachers who perform poorly. Tenure status will also be “portable” for teachers who take a job in another school district, which may encourage those who would otherwise leave the field to stay.

These reforms raise the bar for teachers at the same time that they elevate the status of the teaching profession.

Finally, the legislation carefully balances the existing rights of teachers with the needs of students. It preserves teachers’ right to strike but makes striking more difficult in Chicago, where more students would be impacted.

School boards and unions must negotiate and publicly disclose their bargaining positions before launching a strike, and 75 percent of all Chicago Teachers Union, or CTU, members would need to vote to strike instead of the current 50 percent threshold.

The legislation would also empower the Chicago Board of Education to unilaterally lengthen the school day or year, and the CTU would retain the right to collectively bargain over pay and benefits for the extended hours. Research suggests that low-income and minority students benefit the most from high-quality additional learning time, and S.B. 7 opens the door to greater opportunities for students who need them most.

S.B. 7 now heads to the House, where it should be passed without hesitation. These reforms are ambitious and courageous steps toward closing the achievement gap. Recent state education battles have shown that extreme actions might grab headlines but they don’t always get results. By bringing all parties to the table and working persistently to reach an agreement, Illinois has created buy-in among all stakeholders for a shared vision of reform.

At a time when many states are eager to display their commitment to education through unnecessary contentiousness, Illinois is serving as a model of collaboration for other states that are serious about reforming education.

Cynthia Brown is Vice President for Education Policy and Theodora Chang is an Education Policy Analyst at American Progress.

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