SPRINGFIELD -- The head of an influential group advocating changes to Illinois education policy caused a stir in state politics recently when a video  surfaced of him talking glibly about a landmark education reform package that became law earlier this year.

SPRINGFIELD -- The head of an influential group advocating changes to Illinois education policy caused a stir in state politics recently when a video  surfaced of him talking glibly about a landmark education reform package that became law earlier this year.


Jonah Edelman, CEO of Stand for Children, quickly apologized and retracted his remarks, which were delivered at a the Aspen Institute’s Festival of Ideas in Colorado and were acidly directed at the state’s teachers’ unions. Lawmakers denounced him, calling his remarks an inaccurate and incomplete description of the events surrounding Senate Bill 7.


But despite the bluster, lawmakers and education policy experts said they expect Stand for Children to continue to be influential, particularly given the $3 million balance in the bank account of its political-action committee, which could make the group a major factor in the 2012 legislative campaign.


Edelman told the institute that to get reform legislation passed, he exploited a rift between House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, and the state’s teachers’ unions, particularly the Illinois Federation of Teachers, and tilted Stand’s 2010 campaign contributions toward Madigan.


“The individual candidates were essentially a vehicle to execute a political objective, which was to tilt toward Madigan,” Edelman said of the candidates who received contributions.


After the election, Madigan appointed a reform committee and asked Stand for Children for suggestions on who should serve, Edelman said. Meanwhile, Edelman hired 11 high-powered lobbyists. While the group’s initial proposal, which went further than SB7, failed to get a vote during the fall 2010 veto session and early-January lame-duck session, Edelman said the unions panicked and were shocked into making concessions.


Teachers ‘feared’ group


“We had clear political capability to potentially jam this proposal down their throats the same way pension reform had been jammed down their throats six months earlier,” he said. “They essentially gave away every single provision related to teacher effectiveness that we proposed.


“It wasn’t a change of heart. It’s because they feared that we were able to potentially execute our collective bargaining proposal,” which would have allowed school boards to decide any issue on which there was an impasse with teachers, virtually eliminating teachers’ right to strike.


After the video surfaced, Edelman backed away from his remarks, and lawmakers have said he exaggerated the role Stand for Children played in the talks. While Madigan appointed an education reform committee in late 2010, SB7 was not crafted by Madigan in the House, but in the Senate by state Sen. Kimberly Lightford, D-Maywood.


People involved with education policy on the state level say Edelman’s remarks have hurt the reputation of the group he co-founded.


“Is this having an effect? Is this straining certain relationships? Yes,” said Robin Steans, executive director of Advance Illinois, an education reform advocacy group that played a key role in negotiations over SB7. “Do I think it’s going to disrupt people’s interest in and focus on doing hard work on issues going forward? I sincerely hope and expect not.


“I think they’ve got some fences to mend, but at the end of the day, they do have $3 million in the bank and remain interested in these issues. I don’t think they’re planning to leave.”


Stand for Children’s Illinois funding comes from 22 of Chicago’s wealthiest citizens, including four members of the Pritzker family and former Tribune Company chief executive and real estate magnate Sam Zell. Based in Oregon, Stand for Children fought a reform battle in Colorado before it made a splash in the 2010 Illinois campaign when it dumped more than $600,000 into the campaign accounts of nine Illinois legislative candidates – six Democrats and three Republicans. Five of the candidates won.


 


‘Genuinely encouraging’ negotiations


Rep. Daniel Biss, D-Evanston, who received $10,000 and an endorsement from Stand for Children, said Edelman’s comments were “horrible” because “the negotiations that went into the production of Senate Bill 7 were one of the few genuinely encouraging indications that people in Springfield can come together and bridge differences for the common good.”


Edelman’s comments made it seem like he wanted to trick unions and wasn’t interested in a constructive process, Biss said. But while frustrated, Biss wouldn’t rule out accepting the group’s support in the future.


“It’s good for Illinois if they can repair the damage,” Biss said. “I’m not prepared to put them on a blacklist. … I would like them to make themselves good-faith, trustworthy operators. If they were to become that, then I could probably accept their support. Unlike the Jonah Edelman we saw on the videotape in Colorado, I actually don’t think it’s constructive to characterize entities as an enemy that needs to be beaten.”


Rep. Roger Eddy, R-Hutsonville, the House Republican leader on education policy, said Stand for Children will be back.


“I think if they approach in an honest, open manner and it’s the type of thing that public policy and education are going to be improved by, they’ll be OK,” he said.


Arrogance


Lightford, who led the negotiations that eventually produced SB7, said “the entire organization can’t be challenged for his mishap and him misspeaking and his arrogance.”


Jessica Handy, Stand for Children’s policy director, who spoke for the organization for this story, said the group recognizes the damage done to it.


“It’s unfortunate our national CEO made those comments that depict an unbalanced picture of what really happened with a real, collaborative negotiation,” she said. “We recognize we’re going to have to do some work to repair relationships, but what’s important is moving forward with implementation of Senate Bill 7 and the revamped evaluation process.”


Despite Edelman’s apology, Dan Montgomery, the president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, said he believes Edelman revealed how he really thinks during his talk in Colorado.


“I’m not sure how it’s going to affect their own agenda,” he said. “I do think, as to lawmakers, he was very clearly in that video spouting an anti-union message on a number of issues. And I would think that lawmakers would be careful about accepting support from them in the future because I don’t think they would want to be aligned with that anti-union message.”


Montgomery also disputes Edelman’s original version of the facts.


“His whole read of the political situation going in, his read on why we participated in discussions, I just dispute. I dispute this idea where we were afraid,” he said.


Montgomery and Lightford said Edelman overstated his and Stand for Children’s importance in crafting the overall bill.


Most of the time it was up to Handy, a former Lightford staffer hired by Stand for Children to be its policy director, to voice the group’s position at meetings, Lightford said. But Steans and Advance staffers ended up doing most of the talking for the self-identified education reformers, according to Montgomery and Lightford.


 


Not the leader


Even Edelman, at one point during the video, says Advance took the lead in negotiations.


“The lead on the reform groups was Robin Steans and … their (Advance) attorney,” Lightford said, adding that she wasn’t impressed with Edelman from the start.


“I never met him (Edelman) until after it was signed and we both went on Fox News,” said Montgomery, who said he attended most of the meetings. “She (Handy) didn’t say much. That’s why I think you see a lot of eye-rolling or almost anger or disgust among a lot of the people involved. These people were the least involved in the actual formation of the bill.


“Generally, that kind of self-aggrandizement, self-promotion doesn’t help people’s cause.”


While Stand for Children may be wounded, nearly all of those active in education reform doubt there will be major legislation on the topic next year after lawmakers spent 2011 crafting SB7 and SB2010, overhauling how teachers are evaluated. Much of the next several years will be spent implementing those two major reforms.


“They have all summer, they have veto session, they have pretty much early next session to regroup and to regain the trust and respect from these other organizations who feel like Jonah totally told a mistruth,” Lightford said.


And as for Stand for Children’s flush bank account, even Lightford, whom Edelman described during the video as being aligned with unions, said she isn’t above accepting a donation from the group.


“At this stage of my career, there’s no need to turn down any contributions,” she said, chuckling. “It’s not like I’m a huge fundraiser.”


Chris Wetterich can be reached at (217) 788-1523.


Stand for Children’s money


Nine legislative candidates received campaign funds from Stand for Children in the 2010 election cycle.


Candidate, party, chamber, amount, won/lost


Daniel Biss, Democrat, House, $10,000, Won


Mark Walker, Democrat, House, $50,000, Lost


Ryan Higgins, Republican, House, $175,000, Lost


Keith Farnham, Democrat, House, $50,000, Won


Rich Morthland, Republican, House, $25,000, Won


Bob Flider, Democrat, House, $50,000, Lost


Jehan Gordon, Democrat, House, $100,000, Won


Toi Hutchinson, Democrat, Senate, $100,000, Won


Steve Rauschenberger, Republican, Senate, $50,000, Lost


 


SB7 provisions


*If a school board has to lay off teachers, it will no longer do so solely on the basis of teacher seniority. The legislation requires performance and qualifications to be factors in such decisions, with seniority being a tie-breaker.


*School districts are allowed to hire and assign teachers based on who would best serve the district, not seniority. The process for firing teachers also has been streamlined, allowing administrators to act faster if a teacher is guilty of bad conduct or poor performance.


*Previously, a teacher received tenure after four years or was dismissed. Under the legislation, a teacher must receive two "proficient or excellent" evaluations during the last three years of a four-year probationary period to be granted tenure. New teachers who receive three “excellent” performance reviews in their first three years would be granted tenure early.


* The state school superintendent can review the teaching certificate of a tenured teacher who receives two unsatisfactory ratings within a seven-year period. The certificate then can be revoked or the teacher referred for "professional development opportunities" to help him or her improve.