01/05/2011 11:15 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

As Clock Ticks Down, Legislature Should Pass Teacher Strike Reform

In the waning days of the legislative session, legislative leaders are still searching for a grand tax bargain that might involve dramatic reforms to the state's education system.

The education package would disentangle some of the worst parts of collective bargaining agreements by allowing the state to remove ineffective teachers, ending seniority-based layoffs, and, creating procedural safeguards to teacher strikes.

It's hardly a surprise that the strike reforms are the hardest sell in a state government controlled top to bottom by Democrats. These provisions are the most overtly hostile to unions since, by directly targeting their reach, the proposal carries the implicit undertone that union power is part of why schools are as bad as they are.

It's certainly a fallacy to think that de-unionizing is the answer to either Illinois or Chicago's educational problems. But a modest and narrow restriction on labor's power like the strike restriction would do a great deal of good in allowing school districts to set the conditions necessary for reform.

In Chicago, the handcuffs contained in the collective bargaining agreement make reform extraordinarily difficult. Take the length of the school year and school day, which are among the shortest in the country. Most mayoral candidates say they will press the union to increase instructional time, an idea that makes a great deal of sense and that ought to be done for the amount that teachers are currently being paid. (See below* if you don't believe me.)

But the union, whose contract expires in 2012, will not allow more of instructional time without an increase in compensation (as those who remember the Debby Lynch story can attest), an impossibility in bankrupt Chicago. While in theory this sets up an open haggling session between the district and the union, the reality is that the negotiation is rigged as the union can effectively hold the city's schoolchildren hostage by calling a strike.

The proposal pending in Springfield--which can be written to cover just Chicago, every city except Chicago, or the entire state--would break this dysfunctional status quo by forcing the union to negotiate in good faith (or risk being decertified) and to submit to arbitration (or "fact finding") if negotiations fall apart. With a more even playing field at the negotiating table, the thinking goes, district leaders might be free to consider something more imaginative than simply how to prevent a walkout.

The proposed strike reforms are a more modest version of the restrictions faced by Chicago police officers and firefighters. Public safety workers are entitled to bargain collectively, but are banned from striking for an obvious reason: the city cannot go one day without police or fire protection, and so the ability to strike would effectively be the ability to dictate terms.

What the proposal for teacher strikes recognizes is that education is more akin to public safety than it is to, say, working in a steel plant: children ought not go one day without school, and, as teacher strikes are designed to capitalize on people's protective instincts about their children, the ability to strike is similarly the ability to dictate terms.

The one argument that the union is making that is gaining some traction is that the legislature should defer judgment on this issue until the next session, which begins next week. While the argument sounds reasonable, it sounds suspiciously like the argument Republicans made against the health care bill in Congress.

As the Democrats said then, the call for a delay is not a good faith effort to allow for more careful weighing of the issue, but rather an attempt to delay consideration in the hope that the pressure to enact reforms will dissipate once the new session starts.

And, like the case of health care, the ideas in the education reform package are not exactly new. The bill that would reduce tenure protections, for example, is modeled after one in Colorado that has been dissected and analyzed in every major newspaper and education journal in the country. The restrictions on strikes are more modest versions of how Illinois treats public safety workers and the rules restricting or banning teacher strikes in 37 states.

Like they have on everything else left until the lame-duck session, Illinois lawmakers have had ample time to study this matter and to decide the best course of action. What they have not had yet is the political will to push through meaningful reforms. It would be a shame if they let this excellent chance to finally act slip through their fingers.


*Starting Chicago elementary teachers earn $47,266 for teaching a 5 hour and 45 minute instructional day, 174 days per year, while first-year elementary teachers in much more expensive New York earn $45,530 for teaching a 6 hour and 30 minute instructional day, 180 days per year. That Chicago teachers work more than 5 hours and 45 minutes per day is true but irrelevant; New York teachers work more hours than their school day too.