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Collective Bargaining Battleground: Illinois

Looking for signs of the momentum building behind efforts to make sweeping changes to teacher pay and job protections? Look no further than Illinois, a state with a strong union tradition, where lawmakers are nonetheless considering a sweeping proposal this session that would base tenure upon performance, make it easier to fire ineffective teachers, and make it more difficult for teachers to strike.

A bipartisan special legislative committee recently staged two days of hearings on a measure dubbed the Performance Counts Act, which lawmakers are likely to consider during the upcoming session.

The proposals would require that hiring for new and vacant positions be based on performance, not seniority, make it easier to fire teachers who aren't doing the job, and base tenure decisions on merit. But most controversially, it would create a series of steps that would create a longer and more difficult process for teachers to strike, as I read a draft of the measure.

I spoke with the co-chair of the legislative committee, Republican Roger Eddy, who also happens to be the superintendent of the Hutsonville School District 1, in eastern Illinois. Eddy told me he favors many of the proposal's goals, such as changing how tenure is granted and changing rules on teacher hiring and firing. He cited cases of districts spending $150,000-$200,000 to remove a single teacher who fights the decision.

"Schools shy away from doing that for obvious reasons," he said.

Lawmakers are likely to seek a lot of changes to the proposal, said Eddy, who says he wants unions involved in that process. But he acknowledges that the piece of the measure that would change rules on strikes is likely to cause the biggest furor. While the lawmaker said he hasn't committed to the proposal's language on that topic, he also says unions' current powers to strike in Illinois are overly broad.

"We have to look at how we can improve the balance," Eddy said. "I don't believe we have balance now."

The Illinois Education Association, not surprisingly, took a dim view of the measure, and called on its members to tell legislators to oppose "any proposals that diminish the collective bargaining rights of education employees."

Perhaps more significantly, the issue could be making its way onto the platforms of Chicago mayoral candidates. One contender, former state legislator and Chicago City Clerk Miguel del Valle, appears to have come out against the plan, according to one online report.

"There has not been a work stoppage for teachers in the City of Chicago since 1987," del Valle said. "To me, that says the current law regarding teacher strikes works, and that this proposal is unnecessary."

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