Bills on vouchers, charters, CEO credentials proposed for Chicago schools

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This year’s agenda in Springfield includes 131 substantive bills – potential new state laws—that would change education policy in
Illinois. Seven deal only with Chicago schools, a small number compared
to most years.

Here is a recap of what those bills seek to accomplish: This year’s agenda in Springfield includes 131 substantive bills – potential new state laws—that would change education policy in Illinois. Seven deal only with Chicago schools, a small number compared to most years.

Here is a recap of what those bills seek to accomplish:

Create a voucher program: The legislature has demonstrated great concern about children said to be “trapped in failing schools” in Chicago. A huge fight erupted in the General Assembly last year over a proposed voucher program to allow about 30,000 grade-school children to “escape” those schools and attend private schools paid by public funds.

That legislation, sponsored by Sen. James Meeks, fell just short of passing. It has returned this year as SB 1932, a bill identical to the Meeks proposal and sponsored now by Sen. Matt Murphy (R-Palatine). The bill was approved by the Senate education committee.

The bill would offer parents of children attending low-performing or over-crowded schools vouchers to pay the cost of sending them to “qualified” private schools. The money – about $108 million per year if 30,000 children are signed up as expected – would come from state funds otherwise going to the Chicago Public Schools.

It is a Chicago-only pilot project, but the bill’s “findings” express an expectation that the voucher program, if successful, might be expanded to the rest of the state in the future.

As an alternative to avert the ferocious fight the voucher proposal will provoke, Rep. Roger Eddy (R-Hutsonville) has proposed HB 190, which would permit CPS to establish five new charter schools that would be open to grade school students attending the lowest-performing and most overcrowded schools in Chicago.

Require education credentials for CEO: Another pending proposal concerns the most powerful position in any school district: the superintendent or, in the case of Chicago, the chief executive officer. Since Paul Vallas was appointed to the position in 1995, it’s been a point of controversy that the CEO need not be a credentialed educator. HB 209 would change that.

Filed by Rep. Kenneth Dunkin (D-Chicago), HB 209 would require the CEO to have a master’s degree in education and hold an Illinois teaching certificate. While that would upgrade the CEO’s qualifications, it is still a much lower credential than superintendents of other school districts in Illinois. It’s a controversial proposal that has been tried before.

Advocates say an educator would better understand the district’s mission and have a better feel for the challenges educators face. Those who believe schools should be “run like a business” generally favor the current model because it expands the pool to include top-flight candidates with managerial skills.

Create new curriculum, test requirements for low-achieving students: Rep. LaShawn Ford (D-Chicago), a former CPS teacher, is concerned about testing and instruction of students whose skill levels are far below their assigned grade levels. He believes children in this situation become frustrated, to the extent that they just give up and, “from then on, they are just attending school for nothing.”

As a remedy, Ford is proposing two bills:  HB 138, which would prohibit a Chicago school from assessing a student using a test that is more than two grades higher than the student’s current skill level;  and HB 139, which requires that a student whose skill in reading and math is two levels below their current grade—for example, a 6th-grader whose skill is at 4th-grade or below—to be taught from a “basic skills” curriculum until he or she catches up or graduates.

Rep. Mary Flowers (D-Chicago) has proposed two bills.

HB 1473 would allow the Chicago Board of Education to develop a plan for a program to establish “common bonds between youth of various backgrounds and ethnicities.”  Her bill cites the national “Challenge Day” program, which aims to spark knowledge of diversity among middle and high school students, as an example. 

Flowers’ other bill, HB 1478, resurrects a proposal she made in 2011 to have CPS require all students to wash their hands before meals.

All of the bills have until March 17 to be approved by the legislative committees to which they have been assigned. If a bill misses that deadline, or is voted down in committee, it will be set aside, likely to die. No bill is irretrievably dead in the General Assembly, but most go into a coma and never wake up.

You can check the current status of any bill at the General Assembly’s home page. Just follow the simple directions in the left column of the page to search for a bill by its number.