Illinois government unions kill chances for more school money, nurse prospects, police reforms

Illinois government unions kill chances for more school money, nurse prospects, police reforms

Unions put up roadblocks for bills that could have freed up more money for Illinois classrooms, expanded opportunities for Illinois health care workers and ensured police officers are subject to better accountability under state law.

Government unions have a great deal of power in Illinois, wielding their influence to gain workplace advantages far greater than those given to public employees in neighboring states. Their influence over lawmakers has put them in a position to elevate collective bargaining agreements above state law itself.

While some predict union power is showing signs of waning, union power was very recently key in defeating legislation with significant bipartisan support that would have helped fix Illinois. Three reforms in the recent legislative session were smothered by government unions to protect their interests over the good of ordinary Illinoisans.

Classrooms First Act

Aside from public pension spending, bureaucracy is one of the biggest factors soaking up funding for Illinois schools.

Illinois spends more per student on K-12 education than the national average, and more than its neighbors, without seeing uniformly better educational outcomes. Not all that money goes to classrooms. In fact, Illinois is the only state that spent more than $1 billion on district-level administrative costs in 2018.

The comparatively high number of school districts means Illinois’ districts serve fewer students than those of other populous states such as New York, California, Texas or Florida. This has diverted money from classrooms and teachers, resulting in wasted spending on redundant district-level school administration.

Were Illinois to reduce the district-to-student ratio and corresponding administrative spending to the national average, the state could free up over $700 million in annual district administrative costs. Allowing voters to consolidate school districts would let that money be re-invested in the classroom.

The Classrooms First Act would have facilitated that by empowering voters to decide for themselves if their school districts should be consolidated. Pairings would be based on recommendations from a commission made up of parents, teachers, other stakeholders and members appointed by the governor, the speaker of the House, the Senate president, and the House and Senate minority leaders.

This bill was opposed by more than 110 school district administrators making six-figure salaries. The Illinois Education Association and the Illinois Federation of Teachers mobilized against this bill, even though it could have diverted money from school district-level administration to classrooms and salaries of the teachers those unions represent.

In the 101st General Assembly, the Classrooms First Act received unanimous support in a March 2019 vote in the Illinois House of Representatives before stalling in the Senate. In the spring session of the 102nd General Assembly, the bill gained bipartisan support with 17 co-sponsors in the House and over 3,500 taxpayers registering support.=

Even so, the bill failed in a 42-55 vote in April. The Classrooms First Act could not survive the combined opposition of Illinois teachers unions and school administrators, and so the opportunity to provide teachers more resources without further burdening taxpayers was lost.

Nurse Licensure Compact

Illinois was facing a shortage of nurses even before the pandemic, but  COVID-19 put additional stress on a labor force already stretched thin. Gov. J.B. Pritzker issued executive orders easing some of the burdens to getting more medical personnel where they were needed, but the General Assembly needed to do more to address a long-term nursing shortage.

The Nurse Licensure Compact would have gone a long way toward that end. With bipartisan support in both the Illinois House and Senate, the bill would have opened the door to all nurses holding multi-state licenses from the 34-state compact. It would have increased the talent pool and allowed nurses from out of state to live and work in Illinois without going through additional licensing.

Also, Illinois nurses would have seen their career horizons broadened. They would have been able to easily take jobs in those other 34 states and help in areas hardest hit by the pandemic.

Both Senate and House versions of the bill garnered bipartisan support with 19 sponsors in the Senate and 15 in the House. The Senate version passed unanimously out of the Senate Licensed Activities Committee, yet the bill never received another vote.

The Illinois AFL-CIO, the Illinois Nurses Association, and the Chicago Federation of Labor were some of the organizations that filed public notices of opposition to this bill. Meanwhile, AARP Illinois, Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital, the Health Care Council of Illinois, the Illinois HomeCare & Hospice Council, and dozens of other organizations, institutions and individuals all registered their support for the bill.

Despite its strong start, unions pulled the plug on this bill.

Police reform

In the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd and the groundswell of support for policing reform, the Illinois General Assembly passed sweeping changes to criminal justice laws in Illinois that received both praise and criticism. But a significant provision was removed: a limit on the subjects of collective bargaining for peace officers. This would have cut the ability to bargain over discipline and discharge of peace officers and ensured collective bargaining agreements could not overpower state law on these matters.

Under the Illinois Public Labor Relations Act, any government employee collective bargaining agreement takes precedence over state law. That means if police unions negotiate favorable provisions regarding discipline, misconduct complaints or any other aspect of their jobs, police reforms passed by state lawmakers can be negotiated away by union bosses.

Provisions in the original bill could have prevented this. Similar provisions to correct the oversight were introduced as standalone bills. None made it into the final bill the governor signed.

Who opposed the fixes says a lot.

Along with the expected opposition from the Fraternal Order of Police, the bill that would make sure police collective bargaining agreements could not trump state law saw opposition from the Illinois AFL-CIO, which is affiliated with the International Union of Police Associations. And the bill that would limit the subjects police officers could bargain collectively over was additionally opposed by AFSCME Council 31, the Illinois Federation of Public Employees Local 4408, which is an affiliate of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, and the Teamsters Joint Council 25.

On June 15 the General Assembly sent a trailer bill to the governor to address certain issues in the police reform bill passed last session, but nothing addressed the issue of union contracts taking precedence over Illinois law. Until that changes, the ability of Illinois to make police reforms will remain in doubt thanks largely to opposition from Illinois government unions.

Unless Illinois politicians stand up to the power of government unions and stand up for Illinois residents, the state will continue to see resources flow out of the classroom to school district administrators. It will continue to see barriers to more nurses practicing in Illinois health care facilities. And it will continue to see reforms addressing police misconduct drown in the ink of union contracts.

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