Illinois: The New Leader in Education Reform?

Elliot Regenstein looks back on how Illinois passed a landmark education reform bill and what other states can learn from its experience.

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn signed a law in June 2011 that overhauled state  policies on teacher hiring, tenure, reductions in force, and dismissal. This paper tells the story of how the law came to be passed. (iStockphoto/Katherine Welles)
Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn signed a law in June 2011 that overhauled state policies on teacher hiring, tenure, reductions in force, and dismissal. This paper tells the story of how the law came to be passed. (iStockphoto/Katherine Welles)

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In June 2011 Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn signed a law—Senate Bill 7—that overhauled state policies on teacher hiring, tenure, reductions in force, and dismissal. The new law places teacher effectiveness at the heart of all of those decisions while revamping the state’s collective bargaining process to boot (including making it harder for unions to strike). This legislation is not only substantively important; it is the result of an intense but collaborative process that may provide lessons for other states considering similar legislation. Indeed, many states are interested in fundamentally changing the nature of teacher dismissal to focus on teacher effectiveness—and at least some of those states would prefer to do so with support from the entire spectrum of education advocates, including business groups, teacher unions, administrators, and more. Illinois’s experience provides some key lessons for those states to adopt as they consider the work ahead.

After an extraordinary amount of hard work to finalize S.B. 7 and get it passed in May 2011, Illinois leaders were eager to share their story with the rest of the country.  Skeptics wondered if the bill was really as good as advertised, but reformers jumped to the bill’s defense. It’s far too early to know whether the language of the bill will actually have its intended effect; while it includes some creative and forward thinking, even the bill’s most ardent supporters acknowledge that the new way of doing business is more complex than the old way—and in a state with more than 800 school districts, the chances that complexity will lead to challenges in implementation are high. But what’s undeniably important already is the way the bill came to fruition and the process that produced it.

To outside observers, the final vote tallies would appear to be evidence that the parties didn’t really try anything ambitious—or that legislators don’t understand what it is they’ve signed up for. That reaction is understandable but inaccurate. In fact, S.B. 7 represents the results of a process in which strong oppositional forces were carefully moderated and managed so political pressures actually produced tangible policy results. It represents proof that significant legislative change can sometimes be accomplished through the engagement of multiple stakeholders, in which everybody compromises on some points but ultimately achieves important progress through the negotiated package of changes.

Illinois’s big bet is that the collaborative process that produced S.B. 7 will serve it well in the implementation of the legislation and will bring real change to districts and schools around the state. Legislation is just one important step in a very long process. Illinois’s theory is that it’s hard enough to implement legislation successfully even if everyone wants it to succeed—so if not everyone wants it to succeed (particularly the administrators and teachers actually responsible for its implementation), the chances drop accordingly. Given the enormity of the challenges ahead, it’s too early to know for sure that Illinois’s implementation will actually be successful. But for other states looking at sweeping teacher policy reforms, Illinois’s experience may well be instructive and offer some lessons that can be adapted to their state context.

This paper tells the tale of S.B. 7—of the history that laid the groundwork for it, of the maneuvering that produced its final form, and of the lessons that may be applicable to other states as they consider legislation on important education reforms. These lessons include:

  • Education policy exists in a political context where the power dynamic really matters. In Illinois the landscape was fertile for reform, but after Race to the Top, reform would not have moved at the pace it did if reformers had not identified and cultivated powerful allies who could ensure their issues would be addressed.
  • Be thoughtful about sequencing the agenda. Identify a logical order of reforms and issues, and work through them in an orderly process. Policymakers can put pressure on the system to keep things moving forward aggressively and steer it in the right direction.
  • Have a strong, honest broker in the process who’s respected by both (or all) sides and has strong substantive knowledge. That creates an environment of creative problem solving, which is what good legislative development requires.
  • Make everybody identify their core principles—and then when those core principles are sufficiently aligned, force compromise on the particulars. If the core principles aren’t reconciled, then that’s not a negotiation; it’s a power struggle.

But if the core principles are aligned enough, then everybody has to be willing to deal. And when the core principles are aligned, the negotiations will typically succeed by moving from abstract concepts to concrete terms.

  • Good advocates play offense, not defense. Even when it looks like the terms of the debate have been defined, effective advocates can find ways to poke at the boundaries of those terms and pick up unexpected wins. Having talented negotiators is key to this dynamic and using a good cop/bad cop strategy can also be effective.
  • Make sure the key negotiators are smart and know what they’re talking about— and have the humility to recognize that they don’t know everything. That will lead to legislation that is better than any single organization could have drafted working alone.
  • Relationships matter. A good process needs to both build on existing relationships and foster the development of necessary relationships as the work moves along.

These lessons may seem basic but they can be surprisingly hard to implement well in the policy process. In negotiating S.B. 7, Illinois policymakers and advocates continued a recent run of success in which they’ve done them all well. This is the story of how.

Elliot Regenstein is a Chicago-based partner of EducationCounsel LLC who focuses on providing legal, policy, strategic planning, and advocacy services to governments, foundations, and not-for-profit organizations.

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