Professional Educators

Education Reform Theme Opens RA in High Gear

Illinois Governor’s Partnership with Educators Takes Center Stage

By Brenda Álvarez

It started in the usual high-energy fashion. The NEA Representative Assembly, dubbed “Standing strong for our students, our schools, and America,” kicked-off with music from the Black Eyed Peas and Lady Gaga, as well as an NEA RA classic: Van Halen’s “Jump.” There was even a special song written for the meeting called Standing Strong.

But nothing energized the 7,000-plus delegates more than Illinois Governor Pat Quinn’s reform-themed greeting.

Quinn, working with the Illinois Education Association, recently made history when he signed into law Senate Bill 7, education reform legislation developed during four months of negotiations involving education employee unions, school administrators, legislators, reform advocacy groups and other education stakeholders.

The bill countered a school reform proposal from so-called education reformers that was developed with no input from Illinois teachers. Member-led reform in collaboration with elected officials and other stakeholders is a centerpiece of NEA’s education policy agenda. The work includes the NEA Priority Schools Campaign, a movement to significantly raise student achievement in low-performing schools, what NEA terms priority schools. The collaborative work in Illinois isn’t unique, but a strong contrast to the political attacks in some states in the guise of education reform.

“I signed a law a couple of weeks ago for education reform and it had our teachers at the table every step of the way,” said Quinn. “I will say here in the Midwest, we have some governors who don’t believe in that model. We have to teach them.”

Quinn added: “We look forward to the day when the governor of Wisconsin, the governor of New Jersey and some of these other governors learn the Illinois way. Everybody in, nobody left out.”

Senate Bill 7 brings bold education reform to schools in Illinois and gives more power to school administrators on local levels. And contrary to popular belief of unions standing in the way of education reform, this bill proves unions are leading the way.

Key provisions of the law include streamlining the dismissal for underperforming teachers while protecting teachers’ due process through the addition of a highly qualified evaluator; ensuring experience and performance is respected, as well as accountability for everyone involved in the education of Illinois’ students.

“We won [this law] by making sure that we emphasize the most important issue in government, that’s teaching our children,” said Quinn. “It’s important that we understand there are two forces in life. On one side there are the movers and the shakers. On the other side, there are those who are moved and shaken. And the difference between them is a good education and strong teachers.”

Previously, education reform in Illinois was more of a top-down mandate that imposed changes without the voice of teachers and education support professionals.

“Education was restricted,” said Quinn. Now with the passage of Senate Bill 7, the bill can serve as “a model for the nation. We want a system that rewards and recognizes good performances and provides resources,” that are needed for student success. “I’m committed to that,” concluded Quinn.

According to Ken Swanson, president of IEA, Quinn’s stance was, “no one has better ideas—a better sense of what will improve teaching and learning for their students—than Illinois teachers.”

“So when the teacher unions came up with their own proposal, based on what teachers know will work in Illinois schools, Gov. Quinn encouraged the process that brings us [together],” said Swanson.

For background on the Illinois law and the path to passage, check out previous coverage by the Priority Schools Campaign. On the PSC website, check out these excerpts from an interview with IEA’s President Swanson and Executive Director Audrey Soglin. On the TalkPrioritySchools blog, read the full text (with links to video) of Swanson’s remarks on passage of the legislation.

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