Accountability Plan Unites Educators in Illinois
“Is it bold? Sure. Will we be the only ones? I don’t think so.”
— Ken Swanson, president Illinois Education Association
Just after New Year’s Day, Illinois educators introduced a major reform proposal to hold school administrators, school board members and teachers accountable for their work on behalf of school children statewide.Three unions representing more than 230,000 Illinois education employees, the Illinois Education Association (IEA), the Illinois Federation of Teachers (IFT) and the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) termed their plan Accountability for All. The legislation streamlines the process for removing underperforming teachers and would resolve teacher dismissals in a much shorter time, helping to reduce costs associated with dismissals for both districts and employees.
The unions also proposed that evaluations be clearly tied to a teacher obtaining due process rights, usually known as “teacher tenure” and that decisions about layoffs in times of fiscal crisis include performance evaluations rather than a system based solely on seniority. Another provision of Accountability for All provides for the expansion of training and mentoring programs for teachers and school administrators and requires all school board members in the state to participate in training.
The package also contains a “Student Bill of Rights” that would hold districts accountable for providing every student with a qualified teacher on day one of each school year.The educator’s proposal to the legislature comes at a time when anti-union groups are pushing and paying across the state for support of legislation to restrict collective bargaining for teachers, including the group Stand for Children, which made the largest-ever single contribution to a legislative candidate in Illinois history (he lost).
Said Rich Miller of the CapitolFaxBlog: “It’s not that legislators and their leaders slavishly bow deeply to anybody with a fat wallet. But they most certainly take lots of notice when somebody comes out of nowhere and antes up with $2.9 million. And Stand for Children’s lobbying stable includes some of the biggest contract lobbyists at the Statehouse. They’ve basically run the board, with heavy-hitting lobbyists tied to both parties and the Black and Latino caucuses. Stand for Children has gone from nowhere to one of the biggest and potentially one of the more successful players in the building within just a few short months, all without attracting significant media attention. It’s truly an amazing story.”
The Priority Schools Campaign sat down recently with IEA President Ken Swanson and Executive Director Audrey Soglin to discuss the issues and Accountability for All.
The Groundwork is Laid
Swanson: We had started dialogue with the Board of Directors last summer around what I called critical issues, pushing dialogue outside our traditional comfort zone. And I think that was very helpful because then I think it was a bit less of a shock when Stand for Children moved in. We said, “Remember, we’ve been talking about these outside parties that are trying to influence education? Well, guess what? One of them has come to Illinois.”
Stand invested about $650,000 late in the 2010 state legislative campaigns and managed to convince Advance Illinois, which is a homegrown Illinois school reform/education quality advocacy group, to partner with them. Advance chose to lend their credibility and link up with Stand. And then, of course, the Illinois Business Roundtable jumped in, along with some other interest groups that traditionally demand the kinds of reforms Stand is demanding. What really got the attention of our members initially was the proposal to essentially do away with the right to strike. Interesting, since they say, “It’s all about teacher quality.” That has nothing to do with teacher quality.
Soglin: We first started hearing about this legislation around Thanksgiving. We couldn’t really get a copy of it; we were making every call, trying to figure out what was going on, what were the proposals. And we were having a hard time getting the information. But we knew something was happening.
Swanson: As Holmes says to Watson in the movies and books, “The game, my dear Watson, is afoot.” I mean, you knew. There was a palpable feeling that something big was in the works and that we were being purposely kept out of the loop.
Soglin: And we made it very clear in our communications — we don’t paint a broad brush around all reformers. There are reform groups in our state that we have great relationships with and with whom we work really well. They’re not out to kill us; they are out to improve education for kids. They aren’t out to destroy the unions or to destroy collective bargaining. So for those reform groups, we made it very clear we’ll work with them and continue to work with our partners in that. And for the others, we’ll do what we have to do.
Soglin: But we also drew a clear line between ideas that will really impact kids in a positive way, that will ensure that every child has a highly effective teacher, versus attacks on collective bargaining. Those are two different things. One was much more focused on labor law while the other was focused on the teacher, as Ken would call the teacher quality issues. Our set of proposals is all about improving the system for all kids.
The Unified Front
Swanson: When the House scheduled hearings of this specially-created reform committee in late December, we were unified. IFT, CTU and IEA testified together as the labor panel. And we said, “Look, we’ve got ideas; let’s talk about reform that works for students.” We were hearing from our friends in the legislature that that, ‘Something’s going to happen. We’re going to move legislation.’ And so that was the clarion call that led us to the conclusion that we couldn’t mess around with this; we had to have a substantive proposal that addressed the quality issues they were addressing.
And we also saw it as an opportunity to get some additional issues out on the table that we’ve been trying to fight for for years. And that is how over the Christmas vacation we developed what’s now called Accountability for All.
I want to acknowledge that my counterpart, the president of IFT, has been in office for only a matter of months. The new CTU president had been in office about six months. And so they’ve had to not just come up to speed with being the new leader of their respective organizations, but to do that and take on something of this significance is a real testament to their willingness to step outside the traditional box.
Soglin: When we came back in on January 3with this 100 page legislative proposal on the exact issues, they were shocked.
Swanson: Absolutely. I think Stand for Children was absolutely shell shocked.
Soglin: They all were.
Swanson: A. They never thought we’d be serious about this kind of reform. B. They never thought we’d react quickly enough to have something in place by January 3. Third, I don’t think they ever thought that an IEA, IFT and CTU coalition could hold together if we had to get down to the nitty-gritty of drafting legislation. So on all those counts I think Stand and some of their allies were stunned. And I think our friends in the legislature were thrilled that we stepped forward with something meaningful.We knew it had to be substantive. It had to be real; it couldn’t just be window dressing. It takes us places we haven’t been in terms of crediting things other than seniority as a RIF Recall set of criteria, for example. We are in agreement with Stand for Children and the others promoting their agenda that it does matter that there’s a quality teacher in the classroom, that tenure should be achieved by people that have demonstrated that they can do their work.
The angels and devils are in the details and their proposal has a lot of what we would call devils in the detail. We think our proposal is much better; it brings a more balanced approach and it preserves the voice of the teacher in how these decisions will be made.
Soglin: One way that we’ve framed this is that the issues that have been identified by others are not the wrong issues. It’s just the solutions; we have different solutions.
Swanson: Better solutions.
Soglin: Right. And we think that the other part where we really differ is that they’ve identified only part of the problem. Through our proposal, we’re building systemic approaches and accountability that will go up and down the system. Teacher quality matters, but there are other pieces to this puzzle, and the quality of administrators and school board members also play a role.
Asking the Members
Swanson: Just to make sure we weren’t going somewhere that was seriously inconsistent with the wishes and desires of our membership, we put a quick poll in the field, literally the week between Christmas and New Year and came back with overwhelming majorities supporting making these changes, supporting these kinds of reforms with the caveat that there’s collective bargaining and that the appropriate safeguards are put in place.
For example, around RIF Recall, we’re saying that in no case can someone be riffed on the basis of their salary and fringe benefit cost. That was a real concern we heard from our members — that if things other than seniority count, we will have a school board that will say, “Let’s save money, let’s RIF the most expensive people first.” And so that’s the kind of safeguard that we needed to put in.
But the vast majority of our members in the poll agreed that something other than just seniority should be a factor in RIF and recall. And, yes, the attainment of tenure should be something where you demonstrate competence. And, yes, we agree there should be a way for dismissal of tenured teachers, there should be a way to have the process so that it works faster and at less cost to all parties.
Soglin: I think it’s important to know that we call it the Stand Agenda, but there are five groups now who are standing behind that — four of them are Illinois groups.
Swanson: Right, right.
Soglin: We’ve got the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, the Illinois Business Roundtable, the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago, which is the business interest in Chicago, Advance Illinois and Stand for Children. So they made some alliances here in our state.
Swanson: And in addition to dropping the big bucks into the legislative races late in the campaign, it’s our understanding that Stand has hired as many as 11 lobbyists, some of Springfield’s most high-profile, high-priced lobbyists. They are in the state to play to win. This is not a dalliance on their part.
Soglin: We’re in it right now. So what happened is, we’re engaged in a process of developing consensus legislation now. So all the stakeholders are convening to try to hammer out the differences.
Swanson: And it is our goal and hope that by explaining why we think our proposals are the right way to go, the final product looks much more like our Accountability for All than it does their Performance Counts proposal. We think we can move the needle quite a ways in our direction.
Is it bold? Sure. Will we be the only ones? I don’t think so. We already know there are other state affiliates who’ve asked to look at it and are already trying to incorporate some, if not most of what we’ve come forward with in proposals they plan to use in their legislative arena. So will it be a template for the rest of country or for other state affiliates? I wouldn’t want to speculate. But I’ll say the preliminary interest level among other state affiliates is quite high in what we’ve done here.