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Teacher tenure, protests on line in education reform sessions

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

AURORA — If some school reform advocates have their way, it could be more difficult for public school teachers to obtain tenure and for teachers unions to strike in Illinois.

On Thursday and Friday, a panel of eight state legislators gathered at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy in Aurora to hear testimony about controversial measures that would affect Illinois public schools and teachers unions.

The possible reforms being considered by Illinois House members include making teacher tenure tougher to acquire, making it more difficult for teacher unions to strike and considering performance evaluations when a school decides to hire or fire.

State Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia, D-Aurora, said these are issues some community leaders have been trying to fix for more than 20 years.

“I don’t know how rapidly we’ll be moving on possible legislation, but it’s been an extremely thoughtful discussion on all sides,” she said.

But LaVia’s co-chairman of the panel, State Rep. Roger Eddy, R-Hutsonville, said there is potential for a school reform bill to be voted on in January.

Lawmakers, teachers union representatives, school officials and community leaders all testified before the committee, addressing a proposal by education reform groups that could foster future legislation. The bipartisan committee was formed by State House Leader Michael Madigan.

The Illinois Education Association and the Illinois Federation of Teachers issued a statement this week calling for more hearings in January.

The education reform draft would change several provisions in the state’s public school code.

Among the new rules, obtaining tenure would be more difficult and teachers with frequent negative performance evaluations could have their teaching certificates revoked.

Vacant positions would be filled “based upon merit and ability to perform in that position without regard to seniority or length of service,” according to the draft.

School report cards would also feature more information about a student’s learning conditions.

Making school report cards more understandable to parents is a priority to the panel, said Chapa LaVia.

“We want the school report cards to be reader-friendly,” she said.

Eden Martin, president of the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago, called for changes to the state code and said that a strike in the Chicago Public School system, which serves about 400,000 students, would be equivalent to a “thermonuclear weapon.”

“Just the threat of it imposes pressure on the bargaining,” Martin said.

Ken Swanson, president of the Illinois Education Association, said it would be unlikely that any teachers union would strike in this economy.

“I don’t think any of the unions would strike knowing that public sympathy would not be very high,” he said. “There is pressure on the labor, it’s not just pressure on the management.”

While teachers unions argued that strikes only happen in severe cases in Illinois, representatives from the Stand For Children organization argued that Illinois is the third-highest state in teachers strikes and one of only 13 states that even allows teachers to strike. Stand For Children is a recently formed advocacy group that seeks solutions for modernizing the public education system.

Yolanda Blakey, a mother from Chicago, said that she sees the need for reform in public schools firsthand.

Blakey has students in sixth and seventh grades at the Morton School of Excellence, a school managed by the Academy for Urban School Leadership, a nonprofit organization selected by the Chicago Public Schools. She said she has seen her children excel at the school.

“But a few blocks away, my ninth-grader lacks the same passion and the teachers do, too,” she said of her son at another CPS school.

“How far behind do children have to become before someone takes action?” Blakey asked the legislators. “The reforms I’m here supporting won’t hurt good teachers.”

Chapa LaVia said she’s hopeful the committee will continue in the next legislative session.

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