Performance Counts

Commentary, Education, Frontier Centre

In Florida, the Republican-dominated legislature has delivered an impressive victory for the state’s schoolchildren — and for its best teachers. Lawmakers there recently passed a potent education reform bill that:

•Ties teachers’ pay raises to student performance, not seniority.

•Eliminates tenure protection for new teachers and allows districts to create higher salaries for tenured teachers who relinquish that protection.

•Bases any layoffs chiefly on teacher performance, with less emphasis on how long he or she has spent in the classroom.

Former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist foolishly vetoed a similar bill last year, much to the relief of the teachers unions and other champions of the status quo. Only in the world of adults-first education circles could evaluating — and paying — people based on performance be vetoed as an overreach.

But Florida’s new Republican governor, Rick Scott, signed a very similar reform bill on Thursday.

Nice move, Gov. Scott. Now it’s Illinois’ turn.

Late last year, Illinois lawmakers got their first glimpse of a strong reform bill called Performance Counts. It aims to do much of what the Florida law does: attract and keep the best teachers in the classroom. More quickly and efficiently replace the worst. Elevate the needs of kids over those of adults.

The bill would make teacher performance a driving factor in layoff decisions. In many districts, teachers are laid off by seniority — last in, first out. That means good newer teachers are fired instead of less effective teachers who are protected by seniority. It would streamline the incredibly lengthy and cumbersome process of firing ineffective teachers. It would not end tenure but would ensure that only the best-performing teachers are granted that protection.

The most controversial part of this package: curbing teachers’ right to strike. The proposal would hand more authority to school boards to resolve contract disputes. It would be harder, but not impossible, for teachers to walk out of their classrooms. We strongly support that provision because when teachers strike, kids suffer.

The legislators shepherding Performance Counts didn’t introduce it last year. But state Sen. Kimberly Lightford, D-Chicago, tells us she expects to file the proposals within the next few weeks. She says she hopes to hash out the differences with all the "stakeholders"— including union officials, advocates and lawmakers.

That’s fine, provided lawmakers don’t dilute the language in a (probably futile) effort to please everyone.

We hear that some state teachers union officials are raising the specter of Wisconsin’s recent clash over public union rules in an effort to scare Illinois legislators and galvanize their own members. The Illinois Federation of Teachers recently warned its members in an email of "Wisconsin-style attacks" that could strip them of collective bargaining rights.

But that comparison is a huge stretch. Wisconsin sharply curbed state employees’ collective bargaining rights. The draft version of Performance Counts that we’ve seen would not go as far. Although it would limit strikes and give Chicago’s school board more authority over the length of the school day and year, teachers would still be able to bargain over wages, benefits and working conditions.

Credit Lightford for keeping lawmakers, advocates and union officials focused on what counts: how best to serve kids in the classroom. She opens many meetings with the right question: "Are we here to get the best outcomes for our students?"

Lawmakers, time to answer that question. Reward the best teachers and keep them in classrooms, helping kids learn.