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Teacher unions' clout keeps tenure strong

By Scott Reeder, Small Newspaper Group Springfield Bureau
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Photo: Submitted
Illinois AFL-CIO President Margaret Blackshere ... she's a former kindergarten teacher.

SPRINGFIELD – Illinois AFL-CIO President Margaret Blackshere stood at the podium at the Illinois State Fair and repeatedly hollered, “Don’t believe the bullshit.”

Blackshere’s 2002 barnyard expletive for Republican and big-business criticism might well have blended in at a union hall, but it raised a few eyebrows at a Democratic Party family picnic at the fair.

Blackshere is not a steelworker, truck driver or backhoe operator.

She was a kindergarten teacher.

But she’s every bit as militant as her blue-collar brethren. And her ascent to power is indicative of the rising clout teachers have within the labor movement.

In fact, two of the most powerful interest groups in Springfield are the state’s teacher unions – the Illinois Education Association and the Illinois Federation of Teachers.

During the past 12 years, the IEA has contributed $10.5 million to statehouse candidates, while the IFT has donated $5.5 million, according to records filed with the Illinois State Board of Elections.

Of all political contributors during that period, the IEA ranked first and the IFT ranked third, outpacing traditional political heavyweights such as power companies, manufacturers and trial lawyers.

But the donations only tell part of the story.

While the money gives the two unions the political brawn to be major behind-the-scenes players in any education legislation, both organizations have mastered a softer sell.

Rank-and file teachers from legislators’ hometowns are routinely brought into the Capitol to personally lobby for matters important to their union.

Sandy Hovonick, a fifth-grade English teacher from Rock Island is one of them. She traveled to Springfield twice this past year to lobby Sen. Mike Jacobs, D-East Moline, and Rep. Patrick Verschoore, D-Milan.

“I talked to them about school funding and funding equity between school districts,” Hovonick said. “They both have been supportive of education and were very attentive to what I had to say.”

They said it...
photo Illinois Education Association president Ken Swanson: “It’s an urban legend that you can’t fire a tenured teacher. Ninety-five percent of the discussion about tenure or teacher dismissals are about less than 5 percent of our members.”

The Legislature boosted education funding and is expected to consider funding equity issues in its session next year.

“Nothing has more impact on legislators than having teachers they know and respect ask them for something,” Blackshere said.

Like most labor unions, job security issues rank at the top of the IFT and IEA’s agendas.

And for both groups that equates to protecting tenure.

Tenure has existed in Illinois public schools since 1941. What was once viewed as a means to protect academic freedom on the university level has evolved into a near total job protection for public school teachers with more than four years experience.

To put this in perspective, since school districts began implementing legislation intended to make it easier to fire underperforming teachers passed in 1985, only an average of seven tenured teachers have been fired each year, out of an estimated 95,500 tenured educators in the state.

Of those seven, an average of five were fired for issues of misconduct such as illegal drug use or abusing a child. And the remaining were fired for issues of alleged incompetence.

Teacher tenure is a national issue, but Illinois’ tenure laws are among the most protective in the nation.

To fire a tenured teacher, an Illinois school district must not only prove that the teacher committed a particular act or exhibited incompetence, but it must also prove that issue can’t be corrected over time.

Union leaders pooh-pooh the difficulty of dismissing bad teachers.

They said it...
photo Former Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar: “They don’t just put up money -- they put people on the streets. They are really the only groups I can think of outside of some of the religious groups that put people on the street.”

“It’s an urban legend that you can’t fire a tenured teacher,” IEA President Ken Swanson said. “Ninety-five percent of the discussion about tenure or teacher dismissals are about less than 5 percent of our members. The vast, vast majority of our members are good people doing good work for students everyday. Those once and awhile rare exceptions are the ones that sometimes get an inordinate amount of attention in the press and the community as well,” he said.

But the clout of teacher unions in Springfield has given Illinois teachers a level of job protection virtually unparalleled in the public or private sector.

“The system for dismissing an incompetent teacher today is cumbersome and difficult. My sense is that it is so difficult that most administrators choose not to pursue it,” said Glenn “Max” McGee, who is superintendent of schools in Wilmette and served as the state superintendent of education from 1998 to 2001.

Blackshere said teacher unions on a local level often become involved in school board races through endorsing candidates and having members actively campaign for them.

Limited revenues often keep boards from giving pay raises as large as some teachers might like, but there are less visible ways that board members can assist a union agenda.

One way is to add provisions into a collective bargaining agreement that make it more difficult to dismiss a teacher.

“My experience with the union is that it always fights over procedural issues – not substantive ones,” said Lindy Seltzer, who retired this year as a Springfield principal. “We spent a year training our faculty in new teaching methods. But when I evaluated teachers based on that training, the union objected because it wasn’t specified in the labor agreement. What was the point in the training, if we couldn’t evaluate people on what they had been taught?”

T.J. Wilson, a lawyer specializing in education law, said this is not a particularly uncommon situation.

Unions routinely push for adding procedural hoops for the district to jump through when evaluating teachers as a tradeoff for not receiving quite as large a pay raise as the union original called for.

“School board members will sit there and say why not give them this – it won’t cost us anything. … What they don’t realize is how difficult it makes it to fire an incompetent teacher,” Wilson said.

Philip Robbins said that during his years as a leader in the Alton Education Association he never argued that a teacher facing dismissal was a good instructor.

“That wasn’t my job. I would just sit there and make sure the administrators dotted every ‘i’ and crossed every ‘t’ and abided by the terms of the contract that school board agreed to,” he said.

The strength of teacher unions within the Capitol often contradicts a public image of teachers as quiet, poorly paid professionals.

Historically, teaching has been a relatively low paying profession. But over time, aggressive collective bargaining has helped erase many of those deficiencies.

According to the State Board of Education, the average Illinois teacher earned $53,820 last year. In Chicago, the average was $62,241.

“There isn’t an interest group in Springfield that has more clout than the teacher unions,” said Kent Redfield, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Springfield and an authority on state campaign finances.

“Their clout doesn’t just come from the money they give out. It also comes from having such a large number of voters and being geographically dispersed throughout the state. Every legislator has members of these unions in their district,” Redfield said.

Both the IEA and the IFT have exhibited the shrewd political skills, necessary to getting their way, former Governor Jim Edgar added.

“They don’t just put up money -- they put people on the streets. They are really the only groups I can think of outside of some of the religious groups that put people on the street. They will actually have people go door to door and make phone calls for candidates,” Edgar said. “Now I don’t think that there is any other group that really has that many foot soldiers and that has an impact. Money is very important and they do put the money out.”

Neither Edgar nor Redfield could point to a single instance where the two unions were defeated on education-related legislation they agreed upon during the past two decades.

“When the two unions work together, no one can beat us,” Blackshere said.

And of all of the issues important to the two unions, protecting tenure ranks near the top.

“I think tenure is a very important concept because we want to make sure that teachers have the safety of being able to do their jobs and not be subjected to the whims or arbitrary accusations of an administrator or the public at large – parents of students in the classroom. There is a totally valid reason for tenure to exist, to protect teachers and the classroom from undue influence,” IEA President Ken Swanson said.

Scott Reeder can be contacted at 217-525-2801.