The Illinois General Assembly ended the spring legislative session Saturday morning with a raft of education bills heading to Gov. JB Pritzker’s desk. They address the impact of COVID-19, the state’s teacher shortage, and mental health.
During the session, Republican lawmakers filed a flurry of bills that proposed restricting what the state board of education, the state department of public health, and the governor’s office could do during the coronavirus pandemic, as well as a number of curriculum transparency bills. These bills did not make it past committee in February.
The bills that moved quickly through the House and Senate focused on challenges created by the coronavirus pandemic, such as a teacher shortage, a lack of substitutes to fill in when teachers are sick or must isolate because of exposure to COVID, and mental health stresses on educators. Other notable bills sought to change literacy standards in the state, prevent testing for young learners between kindergarten and second grade, and allow Chicago principals to unionize.
Here are some bills Chalkbeat tracked during the legislative session.
Bills that passed and are headed to the governor’s desk:
Mental health days for educators: A compromise bill will allow Illinois educators to use sick days for mental health. The original bill would have given teachers five additional days to use for mental health reasons; the bill that passed both chambers of the legislature expands how sick days can be used. Some Illinois educators hope this is the start of the conversation about mental health needs.
Hiring retired teachers: Senate bill, SB 3465, will allow retired teachers to come back to classrooms without harming their retirement funds. Local schools will be able to hire retired teachers until June 30, 2024 if they are requesting help to fill classrooms in a subject shortage area.
Lowering the age for paraprofessionals: One bill lowers the age for a paraprofessional license, allowing 18-year-olds to teach pre-kindergarten to eighth grade until they are 19 years old.
Getting more substitute teachers into classrooms: Illinois school districts have been hit by another crisis during the coronavirus pandemic: a substitute shortage. When cases surged during the winter, many teachers called in sick or had to quarantine and schools struggled to find substitute teachers. One bill, SB 3915, will waive the application fee for a short-term substitute teaching license when the governor declares a disaster due to a public health emergency. Another bill, SB 3907, will allow substitute teachers to teach up to 15 days in the classroom instead of five days.
Assessments for early learners: The ‘Too Young to Test’ bill will prevent the Illinois state board of education from giving standardized tests to students in kindergarten to second grade. However, it will not prevent school districts from administering the state’s Kindergarten Individual Development Survey, local exams, or diagnostic screeners to determine if a child has a disability.
Promising bills that did not pass
Phonics-based literacy instruction: The ‘Right to Read Act’ bill made an effort to centralize how reading is taught across the state by pushing the state board of education to create a list of evidence-based reading programs. It also would have moved school districts toward using phonics-based instruction to teach students how to read. The bill is currently undergoing negotiations with advocacy groups concerned about literacy instruction for English Language Learners. This bill could reappear during the veto session in the fall or in the next spring session.
Removing students with disabilities from classrooms: Under a House bill, removing a student for disciplinary reasons any time during the school day would be counted as a formal removal and recorded. Special education advocates have heard from parents who say they never received paperwork after their child was removed during the school day. That makes it hard to track how many times a child is removed from class. This bill did not move through committee.
Creating a union for Chicago principals: Another attempt to unionize Chicago principals did not pass through the legislature. State law has prevented Chicago principals from unionizing because they are considered managerial employees. A House bill that stalled in the Senate, HB 5107, would have changed the definition of managerial employees to district employees who play a significant role in negotiation of collective bargaining agreements.
Bills already signed by the governor
Paid COVID sick leave for school employees: Pritzker has already signed into law a bill that creates paid administrative leave for fully vaccinated school employees who must stay at home for COVID-related reasons. It also restores sick days to employees who had to use them for COVID-related absences earlier in the 2021-2022 school year. For bus drivers, janitorial workers, lunchroom staff, and classroom assistants impacted by school closures or e-learning days, the bill will protect hourly wages.
Samantha Smylie is the state education reporter for Chalkbeat Chicago, covering school districts across the state, legislation, special education, and the state board of education. Contact Samantha at [email protected].