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Gambling Around the

Bargaining Table



Sara Boucek

Last spring, the Illinois General Assembly passed the most sweeping education reform package in the state’s recent history. The negotiating table mix was a curious one composed of legislators, school administrators, unions and education reform groups. The results speak for themselves, as performance instead of seniority is now the predominant factor in Illinois for the employment of teachers.

As someone who sat at the negotiating table representing the Illinois Association of School Administrators, I wanted to share a few observations about the sausage-making process that brought together entities that are natural adversaries to craft an important, controversial piece of legislation.

“IT ISN’T POKER!” The first step is to achieve a collaborative relationship built on trust. That means putting your cards on the table at the appropriate time. You need to share your points of view and explain why they are your positions on certain issues. It’s interest-based bargaining, and for it to succeed everyone around the table needs to know each other’s interests and objectives.

Were there side discussions and side deals along the way? Absolutely. But there were no complete showstopping bluffs as the talks unfolded. The ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes to try and understand their view is important.

A SENSE OF URGENCY. No real negotiations take place until there is a true deadline or pressure from some other outside force. In the case of this reform package, several factors exerted influence, including the outside reformers who came to Illinois with money and an agenda, and new Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who came back from his stint as chief of staff to President Obama intent on education reform for the Chicago Public Schools.

Simply put, the education reform train was on the tracks. You either could help drive it or you could get run over by it.

“KNOW WHEN TO HOLD ’EM AND WHEN TO FOLD ‘EM.” With apologies to Kenny Rogers, you have to know and understand the climate in which the deal is being made. Was everybody happy with the final result? Probably not. More likely, everyone had some level of unhappiness because no one got everything he or she wanted. But everyone knew when it was time to give a little.

In tough negotiations, you cannot afford to underestimate the power and abilities of the other groups around the table. Everyone must be respectful of each other. Period.

BETTER TO BE LUCKY … As with love, grenades and gambling — and this was a gamble for all involved — luck is an important ingredient. We were fortunate to have collaborative partners among our education stakeholders and other bipartisan legislators to work through the complicated issues. The jackpot was having a state senator, Kimberly Lightford, to lead the negotiations to the passage of Senate Bill “Lucky Number” 7.

Now that we have the law in place, the real job of implementation begins. Our association, as the statewide professional group for school administrators, will play a big role because the evaluation of principals and teachers will be the linchpin to the success or failure of education reform built on performance.

Sara Boucek is the associate director and legal counsel of the Illinois Association of School Administrators. E-mail:



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