When I started as chancellor in 2007, I never had any illusions about how though it would be to turn around a failing system like D.C.'s; the city had gone through seven chancellors in the 10 years before me. While I had to make many structural changes,... I believed the hardest thing would be changing the culture. We had to raise the expectation that people had about what was possible for our kids.
Michelle Rhee, Newsweek, December 6, 2010.
Maybe you have heard of Michelle Rhee. She is the former boss of Washington D.C.'s schools- who resigned (much like former Chicago boss Ron Huberman) after her benefactor, Adrian Fenty, lost his re-election bid as Mayor of Washington D.C. While in Washington, she closed failing schools and confronted what the Chicago Tribune editorial board called the "adults first culture" in school bureaucracy. She was in Chicago the beginning of December talking about her national education reform group she started called Student's First. Her goal is twofold: to sign up one million members in her first year and secondly, to raise $1 billion to counter the political influence of teachers unions that tirelessly defend the status quo.
While Michelle Rhee was in Chicago, it appears some Illinois state legislators were listening to her message. The General Assembly is considering a proposal called the Performance Counts Act. The Act's proposals would focus on a few main points: making teacher performance, not seniority, the main factor in layoff decisions; making it easier to fire ineffective teachers which would spare children from the least effective teachers; and ensuring that only the best performing teachers earn tenure.
Last week, the Illinois state house finished its hearings on the proposal and the Illinois senate will begin its work on the same proposals early next year. However, we must stay vigilant as the teachers unions will fight hard to make certain these common sense proposals never make it to law.
We must stay vigilant because back in May 2010, the Chicago teachers union defeated a bill that would help students in the worst Chicago elementary schools. Thanks largely to State Senator James Meeks (D- Chicago), the state senate passed a bill that would have provided access to vouchers for 30,000 elementary school children in the lowest performing 10% of Chicago elementary schools. The bill was praised by senate Democrats and Republicans alike- it would have provided these students access to $3,700.00 a year from the state, which is the amount the state provides the school per child. Therefore, it would cost the state nothing- as monies already being provided to failing schools, would be given to the students instead and those students could use it to go to a better performing school.
In favor of the bill, State Representative Suzanne Bassi (R- Palatine), called on fellow lawmakers to "search your souls" and vote in favor of the bills as "we have failed these kids in inner- city schools." Representative Ken Dunkin (D- Chicago) also pleaded with legislators: "I'm begging you. Help me help the kids in my district." Finally, the representative sponsoring the bill in the House, Rep. Kevin Joyce (D- Chicago), reminded legislators to "Think back to why you ran for office. Was it for a pension? I doubt it. Was it to protect the leadership of a union? I doubt that. Actually, in all cases I believe each and every one of us here got involved to try and make a difference in the lives of our fellow man."
On May 9, 2010, the state House decided against making a difference and helping children that could use our help and decided to maintain the status quo-which everyone admits is not working. The voucher bill died in the House as many Democratic representatives blatantly caved into pressure from teachers unions. Rallying troops against the measure Rep. Art Turner (D- Chicago) passed the buck: "Chicago Board (of Education) get busy. Do what you're supposed to do."
Since Art Turner made those statements in May 2010, the Chicago Board of Education has continued to resist change. However, the dynamic has now changed: Michael Madigan is now listening. We are listening and watching. If everyone agrees that the system is broken, maybe its about time we change the status quo. Let's keep an eye on Springfield to see if it actually has the intestinal fortitude to pass the Performance Counts Act and make certain Art Turner is unable to help the Teachers Unions defeat reform again.