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Superintendents: 'Ambitious' Education Bill Would Create Challenges For Districts

An education bill with wide-ranging provisions is drawing mixed reaction from central Illinois school superintendents.

The sweeping bill passed the General Assembly in the final days of the January lame duck session.

It ranges from requirements for early intervention services for children who haven’t started preschool all the way to initiatives targeting the teacher shortage.

Peoria Public Schools Superintendent Sharon Desmoulin-Kherat said the bill is all about equity.

“As a district with the high percentage of low-income kids, ELL (English language learner) kids, children of color, African American children, it really speaks to us,” said Desmoulin-Kherat.

She said equity has become more important than ever amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Right now, a big thing for us is analyzing our kids who are struggling and ensuring that they have some additional support, they’re getting extra support,” said Desmoulin-Kherat.

She said the proposal for a Whole Child Task Force particularly intrigues her. The task force is supposed to help create a supportive environment for children in schools across the state. Desmoulin-Kherat said schools need to have measures in place to address child trauma.

“Those things impact kids, whether it's homelessness, depression, incarceration, death, I mean, and the list goes, all sorts of abuse that goes on and on and on,” said Desmoulin-Kherat.

New graduation requirements

Another part of the bill would align primary and secondary school education standards with those of Illinois public universities. High schools would have to teach two years of a foreign language, and more laboratory science, and computer science for graduation.

Barry Reilly, superintendent of District 87 in Bloomington, said those provisions are ambitious.

“I don't think anyone would disagree, especially when you think about the curriculum and the assessments that they put in there, that that's not good for kids," said Reilly. "I think they are.”

But Reilly said the requirements seem tailored for students who go on to state universities. According to the Illinois Report Card, 73% of students in the state who graduate high school go on to enroll in college within a year. Not all of those students end up going to state schools.

Reilly said the legislature needs to keep in mind the other options students have.

“The advanced bachelor's degree, while it's important, it does not have the same significance as it once did," said Reilly.

Districts have several years to implement the new standards. The foreign language high school graduation requirement, for example, would begin in the 2028 to 2029 school year.

Reilly said that’s still not enough time.

“That's really going to be a challenging thing for many districts to accomplish, just because there's not enough teachers out there," said Reilly. "I just don't see that we're going to be able to overcome that.”

Even if districts can find foreign language teachers, Reilly said paying for them is a question.

“There definitely will be some costs for, if not necessarily my district, for other school districts across the state,” said Reilly.

Managing Illinois' teacher shortage

The bill does have proposals to address the teacher shortage. One part of the bill calls for the development of a “robust and diverse educator pipeline” in Illinois by removing barriers that prevent people of color from becoming teachers.

Desmoulin-Kherat said the provision is a game changer. She said staffing is a priority for her district.

“The number one thing on my list: make sure your building is fully staffed," said Desmoulin-Kherat. "Otherwise, everything is compromised.”

Illinois State University has a pipeline program in place that helps identify potential teaching candidates from underrepresented populations as early as middle school and tracks them into a program that can return them to their home communities after college.

Erika Hunt, the co-director of ISU’s Center for the Study of Education Policy, said the bill’s passage indicates the General Assembly sees supporting students across the state as a priority.

“I think that's important, because education really is that pathway to success later in life,” said Hunt.

She acknowledges implementing the changes will be difficult.

“It's always hard, especially when you have a real active session, and there's many bills that come out that you then must implement," said Hunt. "During a pandemic, that's even more challenging.”

It's not over

The measure may not be the last word, though.

Kristen Weikle is the superintendent of Unit 5 schools in Normal. Educators had little input before the speedy passage of the bill. Weikle said she wouldn’t be surprised if lawmakers take another look at the package.

“I think they're open to talking with school districts to see like, what are their needs, and what would be potential obstacles,” said Weikle.

Even if that happens, Weikle said questions about money remain.

“Any time you add additional requirements to school districts, that can be viewed as an unfunded mandate,” said Weikle.

She isn't alone. There is some grumbling by educators across the state that the provisions that increase costs don’t have a clear revenue stream to offset them when state budget deficits make the possibility of more school support unlikely.

But back in Peoria, Desmoulin-Khourat said the bill is necessary to give students a fighting chance.

“We fall short overall, as a district, as a state, as a nation," she said. "This is all in an attempt to do right by the kids.”

HB 2170 awaits Gov. JB Pritzker's potential signature.

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Christine Hatfield, a graduate student in University of Illinois Springfield's Public Affairs Reporting program, is WGLT and WCBU's PAR intern for the first half of 2021.