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The Associated Press April 15, 2011, 8:56AM ET

Powerful unions key to education reform package

Illinois teachers unions have numbers and money that translate into influence at the state Capitol, but they're still agreeing to major concessions on job security and strikes under legislation approved Thursday by the state Senate.

While union leaders said they were driven by what's best for kids, they also acknowledge watching high-profile fights over public employee rights in Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana.

"It made all the parties more cognizant that everyone was going to have to come away with less than their ideal on some issues," IEA President Ken Swanson said Thursday. "But at the end of the day, this thing was too important to not come to agreement."

The agreement among reform advocates, unions and education administrators means teachers would face new restrictions on job-protecting tenure. Layoffs would be based on ability and credentials instead of seniority. Tenured teachers could be fired more easily.

The legislation also requires extra steps before teachers could strike, which could take weeks or even months in Chicago. Unions could no longer block additions of instructional time in Chicago classrooms.

"We all agree that our children come first," said Sen. Kimberly Lightford, D-Maywood, who led the talks. "We all agree that the most important effort in our negotiation is what's best for the child and the classroom."

The legislation passed the Illinois Senate 59-0 and now heads to the House.

Sen. James Meeks, D-Chicago, warned Lightford that the state's schoolchildren "won't like you because they have a longer school day and a longer school year. But when they go to take their SAT test and they graduate, they'll like you then."

Talks about the changes were under way last year, but a group called Stand for Children made a splash by jumping into the debate with $610,000 in political contributions to legislative candidates last fall.

That's a lot of money -- and the group still has $2.9 million in the bank. But it's dwarfed by the numbers put up by the Illinois Education Association and Illinois Federation of Teachers, the top two givers in three of the last five election cycles, according to figures compiled by the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.

Since 2001, there was $17.3 million in political gifts by the IEA and IFT, with a combined 267,000 members.

Sen. David Luechtefeld, R-Okawville, a former teacher, said the groups involved in the talks, including teacher unions, saw that changes were imminent "and that they'd better be on board."

The IEA's Swanson said the agreement shows union protections can be rewritten without "draconian, unwarranted attacks on public employee rights."

The hardest issue to resolve was over the right to strike. Reformers wanted that right revoked, just as Wisconsin banned teacher strikes even before collective bargaining hit the headlines there. Illinois teachers, however, wanted to protect that option.

Unions say they're happy with the final agreement. While the rules would be different in Chicago and the rest of the state, generally a mediator would be involved and the public would have to be told about the final offers put forward by each side.

IFT President Daniel Montgomery said both teachers and administrators feel that letting taxpayers see the offers could help shake up deadlocked negotiations.

"We're confident that we have a good bill that ought to be law in protecting the professional voice of teachers," Montgomery said, "and also allowing them in that process to advocate for kids so that schools are better."

While teachers would still be eligible for tenure after four years, they would have to have proficient or better ratings in three of those years, including the last one. Teachers who aren't making the grade would get help to improve, Swanson said.

Luechtefeld said the changes will force school change, if not immediately. Teachers can't control whether kids come to school ready to learn, disciplined and respecting authority.

"That comes a lot from the parents, and we can't fix that," Luechtefeld said. "But we can do the best job we can with the product we get."

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