The legislative session that wrapped up a few days ago was dominated by debates over weighty topics like preserving abortion rights, legalizing recreational cannabis sales, and changing the income tax structure of the state.
But out of the spotlight, some comparatively smaller changes were considered for the public education system.
For example: The legislature approved a bill requiring Illinois students to file a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (or FAFSA) as a prerequisite for receiving a high school diploma, as a means of nudging students toward college. Another bill gives paraprofessionals (formerly known as teachers’ aides) the same recall rights as teachers if they’ve been laid off.
Other measures would give teachers who receive an “unsatisfactory” evaluation the right to appeal, and make teachers accused of serious abuse subject to suspension, rather than being allowed to stay on the job pending conviction.
Lawmakers declined to approve bills that would form a task force to recommend which districts should consolidate; allow parents to have a say in whether their twins (or triplets) are assigned to the same classrooms; and compel families to enroll their 5-year-olds in kindergarten.
The state's public schools did well in the budget approved by the Illinois legislature and signed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker. It gives schools $8.88 billion — virtually every dollar requested — including $375 million toward equity for the neediest districts, $53.65 million for property tax relief grants, and a $50 million increase in early childhood education funding, the minimum to qualify for federal matching funds.
School officials are also relishing the passage of the first capital bill in 10 years. A task force will review a long backlog of construction projects to determine which ones merit prioritization.
Teachers unions are celebrating the repeal of last year’s measure that capped the state’s pension contribution on end-of-career pay raises at 3 percent; it’s now back up to the previous level, 6 percent. Like the cap, that repeal happened without public debate, simply stated in the budget implementation bill (known as the BIMP).
Another line in the BIMP brought good news for regional offices of education (ROEs), which had been left out of the 2017 school funding overhaul. They’re now incorporated into the new school funding formula.
The same bill even funded some causes never heard in any committee, such as $1 million appropriated for “mobile tolerance centers” operated by the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
“These are busses run by a private foundation that will teach children throughout the state about tolerance, understanding of other cultures, people...” says Amanda Elliott. She's director of legislative affairs for the State Board of Education, and even she was surprised by the initiative. “I just heard about this appropriation a few days ago,” she says.
But there are some problems money alone can’t solve.
“The biggest discussion over at the Capitol for K-12 education really focused around the teacher shortage,” Elliott says. “This is something that’s been discussed for the last several years.”
Yet the shortage, already severe, is getting worse. According to a recent survey, more than 85 percent of school superintendents say they have trouble hiring teachers.
Last year, the legislature passed a law that allowed for reciprocity, so teachers who move to Illinois from other states automatically qualify for credential here. That change brought a 20 percent bump in applications.
This year, the focus was on teacher testing, eliminating the “basic skills” test that’s prevented hundreds of potential teachers from being allowed to take upper-level education courses. Introduced in the 1980s, the test has been revamped three times, making it increasingly difficult. These days, it has about a 25 percent pass rate. The State Board of Education had already decided to phase it out, but a bill in the House suspended it for six years, and a bill in the Senate cut it permanently.
Lawmakers also considered eliminating the two other big tests required for a teaching license — the content area tests, and the edTPA.
“There were different iterations of bills that were filed that eliminated content tests and the teacher performance assessment altogether,” Elliott says. “But eventually we landed on just eliminating the basic skills test and studying content tests.”
Kyle Thompson, assistant regional superintendent of a seven-county area in East Central Illinois, has so many teacher vacancies, he traveled to Springfield to testify against what he regards as excessive teacher testing — twice. He says killing the basic skills test isn’t nearly enough.
“For all the effort that was put in throughout this spring session, I just don’t feel like we came out with enough solutions or as great of an impact as we could’ve and should’ve,” he says.
Thompson blames the colleges that run teacher preparation programs. Their officials showed up en masse to testify against the bill Thompson supported, which would have eliminated all three tests. The bill, sponsored by State Rep. Sue Scherer, was ultimately amended five times to keep most tests in place.
“I’ll never forget sitting in that room, and then 10 or 12 different university professors or deans or whatever went up and stood around that table first,” Thompson says. “That was the group that, you know, was advocating essentially for status quo.”
Elliott, whose job is essentially to act as the ambassador in charge of negotiations between lawmakers and the State Board, acknowledges that the changes approved this session aren’t enough.
“Eliminating the basic skills test I think will help, but it is only one small component. We really need to have additional conversations about other barriers to the teaching field,” she says. “I think another bill that passed that will help the teacher shortage is the minimum teacher salary bill, making sure that teachers are paid what they deserve is important and will hopefully help encourage more people to come to the field. Other things that need to be looked at include pensions, working conditions, respect for the profession. And those are all really big rocks that will take time to evaluate and address.”
Pointing out that one new measure requires the state board to review content area tests, to see whether some need to be updated or scrapped, she has a calm, diplomatic tone. But Thompson, whose job includes helping find teachers for schools in 25 rural districts, sounds more like that student who legitimately needs a fidget spinner.
“I feel like we’re always creating task forces and forming committees,” he says. “It’s just, I feel like it takes so long and every year we do this, it’s just another year of our lives and our efforts just not filling positions in rural areas, you know? So I’m sure they’ll do the task force. I’m sure they’ll come up with some solutions, I hope. I guess I’m just baffled. I just don’t think all the people that were in such opposition to all these changes — I don’t think they realize how bad it is.”