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Democrats address teacher shortage, Republicans push for parents’ involvement in schools

 From left to right: Senators Joyce, Pacione-Zayas, Harris, Turner, and Belt, Courtney Goss, Senators Martwick and Loughran Cappel.
From left to right: Senators Joyce, Pacione-Zayas, Harris, Turner, and Belt, Courtney Goss, Senators Martwick and Loughran Cappel.

Illinois, like many states, is facing a shortage of teachers in the classroom. Currently there are over 4,120 teaching vacancies across over 853 school districts, according to state Sen. Christopher Belt, D-Swansea.

Senate Democrats met Thursday to tout a package of Senate bills that they say offer immediate solutions to the shortage. Democratic Sens. Belt, Doris Turner of Springfield, Napoleon Harris III of Dolton, Meg Loughran Cappel of Shorewood, Patrick Joyce of Essex, Cristina Pacione-Zayas of Chicago, and Robert Martwick of Chicago, were joined by school behavioral specialist Courtney Goss.

While the teacher shortage is expected to be a long-term problem, Democrats said their legislative package is intended to create immediate relief.

Bills in this package would extend limits for substitute teachers (both as short-term subs and total days worked throughout the year) and retired teachers returning to the classroom while receiving pensions, waiving fees for substitute teaching licenses, and lower the age required for paraprofessionals in the classroom.

Goss joined legislators to speak of her experiences working at Washington Middle School in Springfield as a Braided Behavioral Support Systems strategist. She is often pulled into classrooms to fill gaps due to her district’s teacher shortage. Goss is also a certified K-9 teacher.

“I'm missing out on the things that I need to be doing, and working with those students that do need me and the teachers that need my support. If we can increase the number of teachers and subs, that would be amazing, because right now we're struggling,” said Goss.

In addition to the vacancies in the teaching ranks, Pacione-Zayas also said there are 1,442 vacancies in the paraprofessional field as well. Her bill would lower the licensing age from 19 to 18 in order to increase the number of people qualified to work in schools. Other than an age change, requirements for licensing would not change.

Pacione-Zayas, who formerly served on the State Board of Education, spoke on the need for diversity in the classroom.

“In terms of representation: You cannot be what you cannot see. And that's why we have to notice that in our paraprofessional workforce, paraprofessionals tend to be more representative of the student demographics in our state,” said Pacione-Zayas.

While these solutions introduce measures that would increase the workforce for both teachers and paraprofessionals, Martwick said these bills should not change the standards to which educators are held.

“We talk about the shortage. Filling it is not enough. We don't want to just put bodies into a room; we want to put educators into the room to ensure that our children have good educational opportunities,” Martwick said.

All bills in the Democratic package are either on their final reading in the Senate or have passed out of the Senate and are moving to the House for consideration. All bills are purported to have bipartisan support.

This press conference comes hours after Senate Republicans announced a package of bills that they say will increase the rights of parents in their children’s education. The bills, which Republicans say aim to increase transparency of curriculum for parents and increase access to private schools by extending the “Invest in Kids” program, were filed less than 48 hours prior to the deadline for passage of Senate bills.

Republicans did not say whether the measure is part of the national campaign to activate the conservative base by opposing so-called critical race theory.

Sen. Jason Barickman, R-Bloomington, could not confirm any input on these bills from teachers or school boards. He is confident that they will receive due consideration in the Senate despite the deadline.

Maggie Strahan is a Public Affairs Reporting program intern for WGLT and WCBU.