CHICAGO - Under the guise of "school reform," big corporate foundations, banking and speculative hedge fund investors are pulling out all stops to ram a measure through the Illinois state legislature that outlaws teachers' right to strike, and eliminates tenure and seniority rights.
The measure, deceptively called the Performance Counts Act, was actually written by these same interests and is expected to be voted on in the state House within days.
"The drafters of this legislation- Stand for Children and Advance Illinois - appear to have one goal in mind - turn teaching in Illinois into a low-wage, high-turnover job," declared Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union.
"The bill would gut teachers' unions statewide, maximize firing teachers at will, and dial up the already high level of distrust and stress administrators and teachers endure."
Stand for Children is a national organization based in Oregon, headed by Jonas Edelman, son of well known children's advocate Marian Wright Edelman. (She has no relationship to these efforts.) The foundation gets significant funding from billionaire Bill Gates and other wealthy interests.
Advance Illinois is a front group for investment capital based in Chicago, and co-chaired by former Republican Governor Jim Edgar and William M. Daley, a vice president of JPMorgan Chase, and brother of Mayor Richard M. Daley. Daley was recently named President Obama's chief of staff.
The director of the group is Robin Steans, whose father Harrison Steans is chair of Financial Investments Corporation and the Steans Family Foundation, a big backer of charter schools.
Some of these same interests are heavily involved with Mayor Daley's school privatization initiative known as Renaissance 2010.
Many see the legislative effort as opening wide the floodgates for school privatization and corporate investment in charter schools by eliminating or severely weakening the most powerful obstacle to the dismantling of public education - unions that represent over 200,000 teachers statewide.
Teachers and their unions are being demonized non-stop by the corporate mass media as the main enemy of "school reform." It is being said the only difference between good schools and bad schools are bad teachers that must be gotten rid of, without due process and at the discretion of the school principal.
The effort appears to be driven by Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan, although it has widespread support among Republican lawmakers. It comes weeks after the same financial forces brazenly poured over $650,000 into nine key legislative races in the November elections.
Among those candidates backed were Democratic state Reps. Keith Farnham, and Jehan Gordon who received $100,000 each. Both were subsequently named to a hastily constituted "school reform" committee set up Madigan that has held hearings on the issue. The four-person bipartisan committee is co-chaired by Rep. Linda Chapa La Via, a charter school proponent.
While it is being rushed through the House, members of a similar Senate committee have stated they will take their time in considering any reform proposals, according to committee chair Sen. Kimberly Lightford.
The Illinois Education Association, Illinois Federation of Teachers and CTU recognize that not every teacher is cut out for the classroom. They have issued their own proposals for what they consider to be real school reform.
The "Accountability for All" Education Reform Legislation while protecting teachers' rights to due process (the heart of tenure), would streamline the process for removing underperforming teachers and resolve dismissals in a shorter time. At the same time it would give teachers all the assistance that they need in order to improve.
"Every student has the right to be taught by a top-quality teacher. Teachers will also continue to have the right to advocate for their students without fear of reprisal," said Dan Montgomery, president of the IFT.
Teachers and many educators believe the key to improving schools lies with adequate and equitable funding that would lower class sizes, limit instructional time spent on standardized testing and ensure a well rounded curriculum including art, music, physical education, foreign languages and vocational training.
"The message of this proposed law is that the state of Illinois does not respect teachers and that it intends to hold them solely responsible for students' test scores," said Diane Ravitch, who also testified before the House committee.
Ravitch was an assistant secretary of Education under Pres. George H.W. Bush, once touted school privatization and has since become an outspoken critic.
"This mean-spirited legislation will demoralize, demean, and dishearten the men and women who teach the children in the public schools of Illinois. Its other implicit goal is to delegitimize public education and prepare the ground for more privatization," she said.
Teachers and their allies are urging constituents to call their state legislators and express their opposition to the bill. For more information go to www.ctunet.org or call 312-329-9100 or the IFT at 800-752-2175.
Photo: (John Bachtell/PW)