Tick-Tock: Teachers Unions Press To Restore Minimum Clock Hours

Jan 30, 2019

Credit Carter Staley / NPR Illinois

When Illinois adopted a new school funding formula in 2017, it was the culmination of a multi-years-long effort involving a handful of complicated proposals. So perhaps it’s no surprise that a few details slipped through the cracks. But one of those details was pretty big; it was the school clock.

What counts as a school day? Well, five clock hours of instructional time has been the law of the land in Illinois as long as anybody can remember. That’s enough for a half dozen classes, plus a passing period and lunch. But for reasons that no one has stated on the record, that provision disappeared when the new school funding formula took effect, leaving the minimum number of required instructional hours at zero.

State Sen. Jennifer Bertino-Tarrant (D-Shorewood) — a former teacher and principal herself — quickly filed a bill to fix it. This week, it got its first hearing before the Senate education committee, which Bertino-Tarrant chairs. She presented the measure with the briefest description, saying it “re-inserts a section of the school code that required an instructional day to be a minimum of five hours.”

Testifying in favor was Sean Denney, lobbyist for the Illinois Education Association — the state’s largest teachers union. Denney said members are currently trying to negotiate contracts in the face of a new law that implies teachers are optional.

”I can’t think of a better analogy at this point, so I apologize, but all of the marbles have been pushed over into one part of the playing board. We have zero,” he told the committee. “All we’re asking for is to even out the playing board again so we can hit the reset button, and actually talk about these flexibilities, in a light where there’s not this entire group of people that have all the cards and we’re coming to the floor with absolutely nothing.”


But opponents to Bertino-Tarrant’s bill outnumbered supporters five-to-one. Among those against reinstating a set number of clock hours was the Illinois State Board of Education, whose chief education officer, Ralph Grimm, suggested that it’s an outdated, old-school idea.

”We have an opportunity to allow students to work in internships, job-shadowing, cooperative work experiences,” Grimm said. “We have seen some increase in dual-credit opportunities, that may not just fit into what we have had as a common school day in the past. Some of these opportunities are available late-afternoon, early-evening. Some of these opportunities are available on a weekend.”

Grimm sees freedom from clock hours not only opening opportunities for outside classes, but also as a way to accommodate students who aren’t comfortable at school.

”Those students who struggle within the walls of a school may actually thrive and do better working on their own, being engaged,” he said. “Right now, if they’re not in school, they’re absent and/or truant. For those students who struggle, who have anxieties, who have health issues, this perhaps is another way to meet their needs in another fashion.”

The wrangling went on for almost an hour, but some common ground emerged. For starters, all parties agreed that this issue should’ve been debated last spring, before the old clock hour provision was repealed. And they all agree there’s ample room for compromise — such as keeping a set minimum of clock hours for lower grades, since most third graders don’t have internships or off-campus dual-credit classes.

What they disagree about is whether the law needs to be changed back to the old five-clock-hour requirement before those negotiations take place.

Denney, the union guy, said yes.

”I am, again, making the commitment — the next day, I will set up the meeting,” he said. “I will provide the space, I will bring the coffee, whatever we need to do. I am ready to go the next day.”


Amanda Elliot, representing the state board, made the same commitment, but she said she wants the negotiations to come first.

”We would rather have the opportunity to sit down as soon as possible,” she said. “You know, I’m also happy to bring coffee. We can meet tomorrow, whenever is convenient for everyone to talk about ideas that we have if there are concerns with how it’s currently being implemented, we would just love the opportunity to sit down and talk about that before it’s just put back in law.”

In the end, the committee approved the bill unanimously. Sarah Hartwick, lobbyist for a large group of suburban Chicago districts, promised to host negotiations — and also pledged to provide coffee.

As of late Wednesday afternoon, nothing had been scheduled.