Will Illinois Education Reforms Become Model?

   SPRINGFIELD — (Illinois Statehouse News) - 5/14/2011 - Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn's desk is the next destination for the state of Illinois' education reform measure, but the governor may not be the last stop.
   Illinois lawmakers and education advocates say the reforms, which passed the Illinois House, 112-1, Thursday, could become a national model.
   Robin Steans, executive director for Advance Illinois, whose website bills the group as an independent voice to promote the public education system in Illinois, said she watched the vote in Springfield, but knows top officials in Washington, D.C., were watching too.
   "The United States Department of Education has been following this closely. And my understanding is that the president was interested in how the vote went today," said Steans. "So this (measure) is getting, appropriately, attention for both the substance and the process."
   Steans said she's been answering calls for weeks from education advocates in other states as to how they can copy Illinois' path to education reform.
   The reforms make it tougher for teachers' unions to strike. Seventh-five percent of teachers would have to vote to go out on the picket line. The plan also would make it easier to fire teachers by streamlining the process. Supporters say the two-year process to fire a teacher would be condensed to three to four months.
   And Chicago schools likely will see a longer school day, and longer school year because of the new measure. Chicago's public school day runs from 9 a.m. until 2:45 p.m., one of the shortest in the country. Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel has said he wants to add at least an hour to the day.
   But Ken Swanson, president of the Illinois Education Association, one of Illinois' major teacher unions with 133,000 members, said the real take-away from Illinois' reforms was the way that all sides — lawmakers, schools, unions and advocates — worked together.
   "Look at what happens when everyone can come together at the table and talk," said Swanson. "That's something that colleagues in other states have not been given the opportunity to do."
   Swanson also downplayed the national potential of Illinois' reforms.
   "I think the Department of Education monitors the goings on in every state," said Swanson.
   But others cannot help but compare Illinois, and the state's successful move to reform, with other states. State Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia (D-Aurora), said Illinois should get credit for coming to an agreement without protests and runaway lawmakers.
   "You have Wisconsin, the drastic one end," Chapa LaVia said. "And Illinois where we got it together as Democrats."
   Chapa LaVia said she expects to hear folks from Illinois talking about that on Capitol Hill sooner rather than later.
   "You'll see some of our people going to Washington and testifying in front of (the U.S. Department of Education) and Arne Duncan, seeing how we got this done. Seeing how to maybe duplicate this in other states," Chapa LaVia said. Duncan is the U.S. Secretary of Education.
   Steans could be Illinois' educational advocate on the panel. But she warned that no one should be looking for a cookie-cutter solution from Illinois' reforms.
   "They've got to understand in their states what they have to work with," Steans said. "Where do they have leaders on the management side, on the union side, at their state agencies and legislatively? Who do they have to work with that buys the concept that we should be making decisions, fundamentally, based who's performing best for our kids?"
   Collin Hitt with the Illinois Policy Institute said that question remains unanswered, even in Illinois, and everyone should wait a bit before trying to export the "Illinois model."
   "Political consensus is less important than policies that actually work for kids," Hitt said.
   Hitt noted Quinn has yet to sign the legislation, though all signs are that he will.
   IPI is a nonpartisan research organization that supports free-market principles and liberty-based public policy initiatives in the state, according to its website.
   "If Governor Quinn signs this into law, then we can say that a Democratic Legislature and a Democratic governor did something that was unexpected a year ago," Hitt said.
   But State Rep. Roger Eddy, R-Hutsonville, said these education reforms should not be all that unexpected. He said Illinois started on the road to reform as part of the federal Race to the Top program. The state never saw the $500 million from the Obama administration pilot program that awarded grants to states for innovative, comprehensive educational reforms.
   But Eddy said Illinois did start having conversations about education reform.
   "In a lot of states, as they begin to discuss reforms related to education, you see this clash that takes place," he said. "In this case we came to an agreement with the major players. That's not been done around the country."
   Still, Eddy agreed a bit with Hitt, saying Illinois needs to actually implement the education reforms before the state can "spike the football."
   The only "no" vote came from State Rep. Monique Davis, D-Chicago, who said she could not support a plan that could weaken the Chicago Teachers' Union.
   "I'm not going to be a union buster," Davis said. "Especially starting in my own city."
   Story courtesy of Illinois Statehouse News.