Civility was maintained even as a few sparks flew when the Illinois House Education Reform Committee heard about three hours of testimony Thursday in Aurora on a proposal to limit teacher tenure.

The committee’s goal is to craft new state policy allowing the Chicago Public Schools and school districts statewide to attract and retain high quality teachers, and to get rid of teachers who fail by the most basic measure of success – how much their students learn.

Perhaps 250 people attended the hearing in the Lecture Hall at the Illinois Math and Science Academy, and surely all of them agreed with that elusive and ambitious goal. But while teachers’ union representatives signaled their willingness to reform tenure and evaluation, disagreements abounded on the ways to achieve that goal, and especially on the timeframe.

The committee wants legislation drafted in final form within about two weeks and ready for enactment when the General Assembly convenes in Springfield from January 3-11.

“How many generations [of students] are we going to lose?” committee member Rep. Robert Prichard (R-Sycamore) asked teachers’ union representatives at the hearing. “Will you work with us over the next two weeks – not two months?” Prichard demanded.

Illinois Federation of Teachers President Dan Montgomery, who had said the IFT could not support a draft of legislation already under review by the committee “if it is enacted as is,” deflected as well the two-week deadline asserted by Prichard.

While change in teachers’ tenure and other job protections is needed, Montgomery said, change that is not carefully thought out, or change that is “imposed” without considering the teachers’ perspective, could do more harm than good.

If it takes longer than two weeks to craft an effective comprehensive reform of Illinois tenure law, “no generation would be lost,” Montgomery added.

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis cautioned the committee that “we have to be precise about language” in legislation of such sweeping impact. “We are committed to a great evaluation system. It’s something we know has to happen, but it has to happen well.”

The proposal under review streamlines the process of terminating teachers for incompetence. It is endorsed by the education reform advocacy organizations Illinois First and Stand for Children Illinois, as well as by the Illinois Business Roundtable, and is linked to a 2009 state law (the Performance Evaluation Reform Act) that involves multiple measures of teachers’ performance, including heavy reliance on student test scores.

“Much of this is to implement [that law],” said Robin Steans, executive director of Advance Illinois.

Complicating the timeframe issue is the fact that the measurements called for in the law have yet to be defined in administrative rules by the Illinois State Board of Education. The rule-making process is not expected to be complete until 2012.

Illinois Education Association President Ken Swanson reminded committee co-chairs Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia (D-Aurora) and Rep. Roger Eddy (R-Hutsonville) that the IEA had “worked with” them in drafting PERA and other major school policy advances in recent years. “The IEA is committed and we walk our walk,” he said as he assured the committee of his union’s willingness to work for tenure reform.

In questioning the two-week deadline for achieving this goal, Swanson said, the union is “not trying to drag out a process and obstruct change. We just need to work together.”

As substantive disagreements relating to the proposal under review became obvious, Eddy advised witnesses at the hearing to develop bill language of their own that would meet the goals of tenure reform while alleviating their concerns.

At the end of the hearing, union representatives and other participants expressed a willingness to follow Eddy’s direction, even though it will conflict with holiday season plans they would have preferred.

Why is the committee in such a hurry?

No one talked about it in the formal committee discussion, so it is not on the public record. But in private conversations it was generally acknowledged that education reform proposals are part of a larger package of reforms the General Assembly is likely to consider early in January.

The period from January 3-11 is the last opportunity for the current General Assembly, the 96th, to consider a major expansion of the state’s revenue base – in other words, to raise taxes. Gov. Pat Quinn has said such action is necessary for the state to recover from its historic fiscal crisis.

But, just as President Barack Obama had to yield to Republican demands that tax breaks for the rich be part of his plan to cut taxes for middle- and low-income taxpayers and extend unemployment benefits, some concession to Republican legislators in Illinois is considered necessary to get tax increases passed.

Education reform joins Medicaid reform and workers compensation reform as an element of such a package. Committees in both the House and Senate are working feverishly on all those issues, hoping to strike a grand deal on all three before the 97th General Assembly convenes on January 12.

 Jim Broadway is the founder and publisher of State School News Service.

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