The Illinois legislature is poised to consider some controversial education reform proposals in the coming month.
From a gambling expansion and pension borrowing to the abolition of the death penalty and a debate over tax reform, the General Assembly still has a lot of ground to cover during the final days of its veto session, scheduled for early January. Thanks to House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago), we can add education reform to the mix.
On Friday, the Chicago Democrat announced the formation of an eight-member bipartisan working group named the "House Special Committee on Education Reform." Like the State Senate committees looking for ways to cut costs in the state's workers' compensation and Medicaid systems, the education panel will convene at least twice this month, on December 15 and 16, in Springfield. State Rep. Linda Chapa La Via (D-Aurora) will co-chair the group for the Democrats. She'll be joined by State Reps. Keith Farnham (D-Elgin), Jehan Gordon (D-Peoria), and Karen Yarbrough (D-Chicago), all of whom represent one of the largest districts in the state. (The Republican leadership have not yet named its members.)
"Education reform" can mean just about anything these days, but Chapa La Via telegraphed her priorities in a brief interview with Crain's Greg Hinz last week: "Among [the] items on the agenda, according to Ms. LaVia: requiring teacher performance to be a factor in compensation, simplifying the teacher dismissal process, and linking tenure to teacher performance."
Those issues are controversial among some progressive education advocates, to put it mildly. Merit pay, for example, has been hotly contested in academic circles for years, a debate that Dana Goldstein reviews comprehensively here. "To date," she writes, "there's no hard evidence that these policies have been transformative in the places where they have been deployed." Indeed, a report released by Mathematica Policy Research this summer found that Chicago's own Teacher Advancement Program (TAP), designed jointly by district officials (including Arne Duncan) and the Chicago Teacher's Union, had not improved performance at the schools that implemented the program after two years.
While there may be value in connecting student achievement with compensation, education stakeholders are still trying to devise a system that fairly judges each teacher's impact in the classroom (and student growth more generally). A bill Gov. Pat Quinn signed into law this past January, the Performance Evaluation Reform Act of 2010 (SB 315), encourages schools to make student performance a primary factor in determining teacher and administrator pay.
Making modifications in tenure rules is perhaps a dicier proposition. Currently, teachers can gain tenure after working four consecutive years in the same district, if their administrators approve of their performance during mandated evaluations. (Until that point, non-tenured staff members are at-will employees whose contracts must be renewed annually.) State law requires there to be "a specific reason" to relieve a tenured teacher of his or her duties. If that instructor is later given an unsatisfactory performance review, he or she has an intensive 90-day "remediation period" to demonstrate improvement before the contract is terminated or an appeal is filed.
The Illinois Federation of Teachers -- one the state's two largest teachers unions -- agrees that the district-by-district evaluation process needs to be reassessed, the ostensible goal of SB 315, which the group did not outright oppose. But Dave Comerford, the union's spokesperson, was clear that the IFT would fight due process changes tooth and nail. Without strong tenure protections, he points out, educators could be unjustly dismissed for a range of reasons that have little to do with performance: refusing to look the other way if a star athlete fails a class, for example, or teaching content that some parents or principals don't agree with politically.
Comerford still has very little information about the schedule of the hearings, although he did say several IFT leaders -- including IFT President Dan Montgomery and Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis -- would be available to testify.
Madigan's calculus for focusing on education at the end of the veto session is not entirely clear. Of course, it's easier to get tough bills passed when the caucus is filled with lame duck lawmakers. Some Democrats in Congress, meanwhile, have proposed a third round of Race to the Top funding, which Illinois could position itself to receive.
The emergence of Stand For Children Illinois (SFC), however, is probably the political elephant in the capitol dome. The education advocacy group, formed locally in September, dumped more outside cash to legislative candidates than every PAC except the Illinois Education Association this election cycle. Reps. Gordon and Farnham were both recipients of major SFC donations. The group buoyed the campaigns of several other Democratic candidates, too. And one of its few stated goals so far is altering teacher tenure so that it's "earned and kept based on demonstrated effectiveness according to multiple measures (not just test scores and not just classroom observation)."
It's important to remember that the General Assembly reduced pension benefits for future teachers and other state employees this spring; as of April, the Land of Lincoln has the highest teacher retirement age (67 years old) in the country. By cutting back on additional professional incentives, the state runs the risk of pushing potential educators into different, less socially useful fields.
It's also discouraging that school funding reform is absent from Chapa La Via's list of discussion topics. The way Illinois currently pays for education, with a heavy reliance on property taxes, is both unsustainable and unfair to kids (and taxpayers) who live in poor communities. The state's Education Funding Advisory Board, for example, has recommended that Illinois bump up its per-pupil foundation level spending by $2,000 a year. But that's a topic several education reformers, wary of engaging in a politically charged (but important) debate about taxes, continually ignore.
To her credit, Chapa La Via has spoken eloquently about Illinois' backwards tax structure and its effect on classroom resources. In an interview with Fox Chicago this summer, she said Republicans and Democrats "need to get to the table ... and find out how we can restructure our tax base so we can fund education." Her committee provides an excellent opportunity to do just that.