Epic Miscalculation Has Illinois Teachers Unions in the Crosshairs

The cat is out of the bag: legislative leaders in Springfield are readying a mammoth education reform package aimed primarily at curtailing the power of the state's teachers unions, a shocking turn of events in a state with two powerful teachers unions that is still controlled top-to-bottom by Democrats.

The proposal contains elements that reformers have sought for years, including a clear process to push out sub-par tenured teachers, layoffs based on quality rather than by seniority, and tight constraints on the ability of teachers unions to strike. Each of these ideas certainly has some merit. Consider the following:

  • When the Chicago Public Schools laid off teachers this summer, the union contract mandated that it do by seniority without regard for quality. The result was that many talented young teachers were shown the door in order to protect the jobs of lower-performing teachers with more seniority .
  • While Chicago hasn't had a teacher strike since 1987, the threat of destabilizing strikes--which were common throughout the 1980s--has prevented the district from pressing the union on a host of performance-related issues. Former CPS chief Ron Huberman has reportedly said that the one thing that would most enable him to press for reforms at the bargaining table would be a law limiting the union's right to strike like those that exist for police and firefighters.
  • Of course, dialing back union protections and power will not, on its own, produce high-performing schools (as some, like the directors of Waiting for "Superman", argue). Still, lifting some of the most egregious constraints--namely the thicket of protections for tenured teachers--in union contracts will likely do some good.

    So what made Illinois legislators suddenly find religion? As one might expect, it seems to be as much about political horse-trading as it does about creating sound public policy.

    The reason that an agenda so hostile to the unions has such a good chance of passing is that both of the state's teachers unions--the Illinois Federation of Teachers and the Illinois Education Association--seem to have made fundamental miscalculations about how to deploy their political muscle.

    In the past legislative session, the unions judged legislators on three votes: whether they supported an income tax increase, and whether they opposed both vouchers for Chicago students and cutbacks to pensions for newly-hired employees. Many Democrats voted "correctly" on the first two but broke with the unions on the third one.

    The pension vote--which affects employees hired from the start of the year--ended up creating a split between the unions and the state's Democratic establishment. Both unions withheld support from House Speaker Michael Madigan's candidates in many tight contests, and the IFT--of which the Chicago Teachers Union is a part--declined to put serious organizational support behind Governor Pat Quinn, who signed the pension legislation.

    The daylight between the Democratic leaders and the teachers unions has been skillfully exploited by staunchly pro-reform Stand for Children, an Oregon-based advocacy group that gave away $635,000 in one massive dump of campaign cash last fall. All of the money went to candidates locked in tight races, giving Stand--the driving force behind the reform efforts--an enormous amount of clout with leaders on both sides of the aisle.

    The broader context for this switch in loyalties is the need to pass a tax increase, which makes it more likely that the reform package will pass. As numerous reports have noted, Madigan needs Republican votes for a tax hike, and House Minority Leader Tom Cross is unlikely to supply them without reforms to the state's education, Medicaid, and workman's compensation system.

    Yes, it's still far from certain that any of these education reforms will pass, as the IEA has an ally in Quinn and the Senate is hard to read. But when one contrasts the tenor of this package to the reforms passed earlier this year to the state's charter law and teacher evaluation protocols--which drew union support--it's clear that the unions erred by splitting so sharply with the Democrats based on the pension vote alone.

    As it stands now, the partial realignment of Democratic loyalties and the need to negotiate with Republicans have put the teachers unions in the worst place they can be: a constituency to whom little is owed and who may well be thrown under the bus as part of a grand bargain.