As an 8th-grade student, Jamie Adams once was sent to the principal’s office after a check of her book bag turned up a pack of gum. Adams was told she’d have to pay a $1 fine per stick of gum as punishment for breaking her charter school’s rules. “Which is ridiculous for a low-income family,” says Adams, now 17 and a rising senior at Roosevelt High School in Albany Park.
That memory is especially strong for Adams because under new state legislation that she and other Chicago students lobbied for, schools would be prohibited from charging students fines as a disciplinary consequence.
SB100 would ban zero-tolerance policies in Illinois schools and require that expulsions, out-of-school suspensions longer than three days and disciplinary referrals to alternative schools be used as a last resort. Suspended students would be permitted to make up work for academic credit, and charter schools would face the same discipline regulations as traditional public schools. The legislation was spurred by protests against discipline fines levied at Noble Street charter schools and by recent federal data showing that students of color are suspended and expelled at disproportionately higher rates than white students.
The bill is among about a dozen pieces of important education-related legislation — spanning topics such as high school graduation requirements, student health and teacher licenses — awaiting action from Gov. Bruce Rauner. After a bill hits Rauner’s desk, he has 60 calendar days to sign or veto the legislation. If he does nothing, the bill automatically becomes law.
Changing graduation requirements … On its face, HB4025 seemed like a no-brainer. Starting in the 2016-17 school year, the bill would require high school students to take at least one semester of civics — focusing on current events, the democratic process and government institutions — as part of their mandatory two years of social studies. But the real debate lay in how schools would pay for the new requirement.
A collection of organizations, including the Robert R. McCormick Foundation and The Chicago Community Trust, pledged $3 million over the next three years to pay for teacher training. But opponents, like the Illinois Statewide School Management Alliance, which represents school administrators, business officials, principals and school boards, argued the private funding likely won’t cover all costs to school districts and said the requirement limits students’ ability to take electives, Advanced Placement courses and other classes.
Teacher license reciprocity … Another bill, HB2657, would make it easier for out-of-state teachers and principals to get licensed to work in Illinois schools. The bill says teachers who’ve passed a basic skills test or teacher-effectiveness assessment in other states don’t have to take Illinois tests to get their initial license.
NCLB waiver compliance … HB2683 would put into statute the plans Illinois set forth in its waiver request from the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The bill eliminates references to the former accountability system — like the adequate yearly progress measure and academic warning and watch statuses for schools — and puts in place a new system that looks at not just student achievement in reading and math, but student progress over time, school climate and student outcomes, such as graduation rates.
The bill requires the Illinois State Board of Education to set annual measurable objectives in reading and math — targets for each district, school and subgroups — with the goal of reducing in half the percentage of students who are not proficient in those areas over six years. The legislation also sets up supports for struggling schools and districts, now called “priority” and “focus” schools. “It’s a huge step in the right direction,” says Jessica Handy, the government affairs director at Stand for Children Illinois. “We’re coming into compliance with what we said we’d do.”
College credit for AP exams … Under HB3428, scores of 3, 4 and 5 on the College Board’s Advanced Placement exams would receive guaranteed college credit at Illinois public universities and community colleges starting in the 2016-17 school year. Supporters of the measure — including ISBE and associations representing principals, school boards and large school districts — say the bill replaces the hodgepodge system in place across the state and prevents students from having to retake college courses they’ve already mastered, saving them time and potentially money.
Free college entrance exam? … SB1455 would require that one of the reading and math assessments given to high school students also test their readiness for college and careers — and that Illinois public universities and colleges accept those scores for admission purposes. The trouble is, education advocates say, Illinois does not now have a test that meets those criteria. For example, the new Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) is not yet accepted by colleges, and the ACT doesn’t test what students learn in the classroom.
Some viewed the bill as an attempt to make the state cover the costs of administering the ACT again, as it did when high school juniors took the test as part of the Prairie State Achievement Examination, which ended in 2014. The Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) budgeted $14 million this past school year to pay for ACT exams at districts that opted to offer it, according to the Chicago Tribune.
Handy at Stand for Children says school districts and education advocates agree high school students should have access to a free college-entrance exam — but not without holding a competitive bidding process to determine who will administer the test. Matt Vanover, a spokesman for ISBE, says there are “still some questions about this bill,” and it’s unclear how it would be implemented since it has no budget attached to it. ACT’s contract has expired, he said, and future testing services would have to be put out to bid.
Drug convictions won’t bar job applicants … Ex-offenders with non-violent felony records — most notably for drug offenses — would be allowed to work in schools beginning seven years after their convictions under HB494. This excludes serious felony offenses, such as aggravated arson, robbery or sexual assault. (Catalyst Chicago is a publication of Community Renewal Society, which advocated for this legislation.) The Illinois Policy Institute, a Chicago-based think tank, praised the bill for giving local schools the right to make hiring decisions. But the NPR affiliate in Springfield notes that some legislators expressed concern about the bill because it allows people convicted of prostitution, public indecency and human trafficking — misdemeanor sex offenses — to apply for jobs in schools.
Open Meetings Act change … On a smaller scale, HB1498 would allow school boards to meet in closed session to discuss school safety and security.
Watching student attendance … A commission would be created within ISBE under HB3197 to study chronic absenteeism, hold hearings and report annually to the General Assembly for the next five years on ways to prevent and combat the issue. Madelyn James, who focuses on early childhood education at the advocacy organization Voices for Illinois Children, says that after the Tribune published a striking series on student absenteeism in 2012, attention immediately focused on truancy. But as advocates dug in, she says, they realized attendance needed to be looked at more broadly.
James says the commission will look at ways to improve data collection and monitoring and can help push for reforms, such as compelling districts to periodically review truancy data, holding charters to the same truancy laws as traditional public schools and changing how average daily attendance is calculated. Right now, the metric — which is used to determine state aid — looks at schools’ three best months of attendance, which can obscure problems.
“We know that there is really a lot of information that we don’t know by grade, by gender, by ethnicity, by school and by district,” James says. “I think attendance can really help us begin to understand a lot of the broader issues about why our kids don’t come to school.”
Criminal disclosure for charters … Not many bills affecting charter schools passed both houses this session, but SB1591 was one. It would require organizations submitting new charter school proposals to disclose if they are being investigated by local, state or federal law enforcement in criminal or civil matters. (“Investigation” would include a request for interview from law enforcement, a subpoena, an arrest or an indictment.) Members of the organization’s governing body would have to make it known if they face investigation in a criminal matter.
Health and safety compliance at charters … HB1360 requires charter schools to comply with state health and safety requirements that apply to traditional public schools — excluding health education curriculum and instruction rules. To clear up any confusion, ISBE will post a list of the requirements on its website this fall, with annual updates.
Student athletes and concussions … SB7 requires school boards to appoint a concussion oversight team to establish protocols for when junior high and high school student athletes can return to playing sports and attend class after they’ve suffered a concussion. Students must be removed from practices or games if a coach, physician, trainer, parent or game official believes the student may have sustained a concussion, and the athlete can’t return until getting checked out.
Overdose treatment in schools … Citing a rise in heroin-related deaths in Illinois, HB1 would allow school nurses or other trained staff to administer drugs that can block overdoses in school and at school-sponsored activities. The bill also would create a three-year pilot program aimed at preventing student use of heroin and other opioid drugs, such as oxycodone and hydrocodone.
Suicide awareness … SB1793 requires ISBE to develop a model youth suicide awareness and prevention policy and mandates that school districts adopt their own age-appropriate policies, starting in the coming school year.
Bills likely to fuel more discussion … The ideas behind three pieces of legislation will likely continue to be topics of debate in Springfield. HB306 would have required school districts to inform parents of their right to opt students out of state assessments and allowed parents to excuse their children from state standardized tests by submitting a letter. The bill also would have prohibited districts and school staff from encouraging or discouraging students from opting out.
The legislation, the fiscal note from ISBE states, could have cost Illinois more than $1 billion in federal funds if less than 95 percent of students participated in the assessments. (U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has said the federal government has “an obligation to step in” if states aren’t making sure districts test enough students, but some advocates question whether the government can withhold federal aid.)
Some groups will be talking this summer about ways to address the issue of over-testing without risking loss of federal funding and inaccurate student data, Handy says, though advocates like More Than A Score’s Cassie Creswell* say “parents deserve clear opt out rights written into statute no matter what is done to limit testing.”
HB397 would have removed the State Charter School Commission’s ability to override local school boards that deny, revoke or decide not to renew a charter. Charter school advocates oppose the measure, but regular school administrators say it would give them back local control.
The idea has been floating around for at least the last two years, since several west suburban districts feared the commission would overrule their decision not to allow a virtual charter school to set up shop across 18 districts. The commission planned to deny the virtual school’s appeals, which were ultimately withdrawn.
And, of course, proposals to reform the state’s school funding formula, like SB1, will continue to be hotly debated. SB1 would have revised the general state aid calculation — for the first time since 1997 — to take students’ needs and regional wealth into consideration. Districts with more English-language learners, children with disabilities and students in poverty would have received more money and districts with higher local tax bases would have seen adjustments for that wealth.
Reforming the state school funding formula is part of the “grand bargain” Mayor Rahm Emanuel has proposed to fix Chicago Public Schools’ budget and pension fund crisis. Handy of Stand for Children Illinois says for many advocates, the formula is a top priority. “We’re working on funding reform until it gets through,” she says. “If it doesn’t, it stays on the list.”
*This story was updated July 17, 2015 to reflect a clarification about the work of Illinois advocacy groups and the federal government around opt-out rights and state standardized testing.