State of the State: School Choice No Longer Just a GOP Idea

May 1, 2010

Jamey Dunn
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues
Faced with $1.3 billion in proposed cuts to education in Gov. Pat Quinn’s budget, along with looming layoffs of thousands of teachers and the chronic failure of some schools to meet No Child Left Behind standards, lawmakers are pushing several education proposals that emphasize “choice” for both schools and students. 

Proposals such as allowing schools to opt out of education mandates passed by the General Assembly or giving students at failing public schools the chance to transfer to private institutions have typically been Republican issues, but some Democrats are backing them this legislative session. 

Unfunded mandates — requirements placed on schools by the state without funding to pay for them — have been the target of scorn for many legislators session after session. Former teacher and school board member Rep. Suzanne Bassi, a Palatine Republican, is known for reading off a long list of unfunded mandates during House Education Committee hearings to emphasize the fiscal pressures that legislation passed in Springfield puts on schools. 

Nearly 100 schools have appealed to the legislature to let them lower the amount of time they have to offer physical education or behind-the-wheel training for driver’s education. With schools facing massive layoffs, bills addressing such mandates are gaining traction. 

Senate Bill 3000 This measure, sponsored by Lake Forest Democratic Sen. Susan Garrett, would put a moratorium on new instructional mandates, which require schools to teach certain topics. It would also create a task force to analyze mandates, including looking into how much money is needed to institute them, an area where little hard data exists and which is often a point of contention for schools. The moratorium would end a year after the task force presents its findings to the General Assembly. The four legislative leaders, the governor and the state schools superintendent would appoint members, and the task force would include administrators from different areas of the state. 

House Joint Resolution 74 In anticipation of this resolution passing, the State Board of Education has created a panel to consider which mandates could be waived and make recommendations to the legislature. Matt Vanover, a spokesman for the state board, says the committee got a jump on its work so it can meet the resolution’s May 1 deadline. The panel has reached out to administrators, and Vanover says it has received more than 100 suggestions regarding mandates that could possibly be eliminated. He added that the panel is advisory, and legislation would be required to make changes to mandates. 

House Bill 4711 Schools would not have to comply with new unfunded mandates under this bill, which passed in the House. If the money the state gives a district is not enough to implement a mandate, the district can modify the requirements so it can afford to put it into effect. The local school board would have to vote on dropping or modifying any mandates. The bill has exemptions for special education, requirements for high school graduation, physical education, bilingual education and hiring and tenure practices. It also would exempt programs that receive federal dollars, including those associated with the stimulus plan or the Race to the Top program. Rep. Roger Eddy, a Republican from Hutsonville, and Chicago Democratic Sen. Edward Maloney sponsor the bill. 

SB 618 This bill targets specific mandates imposed on physical and driver’s education programs, as well as requirements to have defibrillators and staff trained to use them, to use 2 percent biodiesel fuel in school vehicles and to use “green” cleaning products in schools. The bill also targets a law passed last year that requires school buses to have two-way communication devices. That law was passed in reaction to an incident when a bus driver was unaware that a student had been left on a bus. School boards would have to vote to opt out of any mandates. The measure would sunset in 2012. Sponsor Sen. John Sullivan, a Rushville Democrat, is holding the measure for now to give the State Board of Education’s panel time to make recommendations.

HB 4886 Students could face longer school days but only a four-day school week. The proposal would allow schools to switch to a shorter week to save money on transportation costs. School boards would have to vote to make the switch, and the State Board of Education would have to sign off on the shorter schedule. Schools would have to be open at least 150 days a year. Danville Republican Rep. Bill Black and Champaign Democrat Sen. Michael Frerichs sponsor the bill. 

The idea behind the proposals is to give school systems more control over spending. When the state places requirements on schools but doesn’t provide a way to pay for them, schools must find the money in their budgets. That is becoming more and more difficult for schools facing cuts, especially when the state is $850 million behind on payments to districts.

However, there are plenty of concerns over eliminating mandates. Cutting physical education does little to promote children’s health. While behind-the-wheel training is costly, simulators cannot do the job of teaching students how to drive. It stands to reason that the more time a teenager spends in a car with an instructor, the better prepared he or she will be when it comes time to hit the road solo. A four-day school week could leave working parents scrambling to find child care. While that plan could save money for schools, it may place a burden on parents who cannot afford day care or babysitters. 

A measure that temporarily stops the creation of new mandates would be a good first step to address the issue. While it is tempting to find savings anywhere possible, the cost to students and parents should be considered as well. Allowing districts to opt out of mandates could be a good way to take some budgetary pressures off schools, but the legislature should avoid being reactionary and weigh the choice to waive carefully. 

A more controversial plan that would give parents new choices would apply only to some elementary school students in the Chicago Public Schools system. 

The measure, sponsored by Chicago Democratic Sen. James Meeks, would allow students attending the bottom 10 percent of low-performing elementary schools, as measured by No Child Left Behind standards, to take state dollars to pay tuition at private schools. 

Giving students from underperforming schools vouchers to attend private institutions is a national issue and a concept that in the past has been backed almost solely by Republicans. The idea has gained some solid Democratic support this session after Meeks, a longtime advocate for school funding, picked it up.

Meeks ran for the General Assembly on school reform and has sponsored different versions of SB 750, a bill that would increase the income tax and expand the sales tax to some services while providing relief on property taxes. The idea behind the plan is to disconnect school funding from property taxes, the current structure that often leads schools in high-property-value neighborhoods to be much better funded than those in less affluent areas. Meeks has organized high-profile protests in Chicago against inequity in school funding. A compromise version of his bill, HB 174, passed the Senate last year but was never called for a vote in the House. 

While Meeks still backs HB 174, his voucher bill is gaining support this session. “I don’t think the kids in these 49 schools can wait until we come up with the perfect plan. And so while we’re coming up with … the perfect school funding plan and the perfect teacher evaluation plan, I just think that we are hurting these student by not giving them a choice in the matter of whether or not they could get a decent education.”

The measure has already passed the Senate. When Chicago Sen. Rickey Hendon voted to pass the legislation in a Senate committee, he said he had never before supported the concept, but Meeks’ plan changed his mind. 

While supporters of the bill say it creates competition and gives students who are not getting quality educations a choice, opponents say that choice should not be made with public money. 

“We have nothing against private school, but it’s a choice and it should be a choice — it should be separate from tax dollars,” says Dave Comerford, a spokesman for the Illinois Federation of Teachers. Private schools would be allowed to opt in or out of the voucher program but currently can pick and choose their students. Comerford says this could be a problem if private schools turn down students with special needs because the schools do not have the money or facilities to accommodate them. “If you are getting tax dollars, you should be open to the public,” he says. 

Colin Hitt, director of education policy for the Illinois Policy Institute, says the Chicago Public Schools system “cannot create suitable choices fast enough” for students in failing schools. The think tank, which does not support an income tax increase and describes itself as backing free-market principles, has been working on the vouchers bill with Meeks, sponsor of the only income tax increase proposal to clear one of the legislative chambers last session. 

Illinois schools are facing hard times. Those challenges have created momentum behind concepts that have not seen traction in the legislature in recent years and have made for some strange political bedfellows. 

 

Unfunded mandates — requirements placed on schools by the state without funding to pay for them — have been the target of scorn for many legislators session after session.  

Illinois Issues, May 2010