Buckner in mask

Rep. Kambium Buckner (D-26th)

SPRINGFIELD — Bills aimed at improving racial equity throughout the state’s K-12 and higher education systems and another aimed at addressing economic inequities passed the General Assembly during its January lame duck session.

All were part of an agenda pushed by the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus. Debates in both the House and Senate were heated, with Black Caucus members arguing that their issues could no longer be ignored and Republicans arguing that despite the caucus’ good intentions, the bills had been put together hastily and were seriously flawed.

Republicans had tried to delay passage of the economic equity bill — Senate Bill 1608, which creates a number of new commissions and, among other provisions, includes additional racial diversity requirements in state purchasing policies — by requesting several “notes” to determine its fiscal impact to the state and how many new mandates it would create.

But Democrats voted to declare those notes “inapplicable” and moved forward anyway. Sen. Robert Peters (D-13th) and Rep. Kambium Buckner (D-26th) voted for it; Rep. Curtis J. Tarver II (D-25th) missed the vote in the House.

Another economic equity bill, SB 1480, caps interest rates on payday and car title loans and to limit the use of criminal history records as a basis for employment and housing decisions. Peters, Tarver and Buckner voted for it.

Peters said the bill limits payday lenders ability to charge interest rates to 36%, down from more than 300%.

"We would love it to be a lot smaller," he said. "But the payday loan industry tried to send down an army of people to start (Sen.) Jackie Collins (D-16th) from getting that done, and what we knew was if you put that bill on the board, most people aren't voting against it. You know you'd get more than 30 in the Senate, because you don't want it to say for you politically that you stood in the way of payday loan reform."

The education bill, House Bill 2170, drew equally sharp debate in both chambers. That bill creates a number of new mandates for K-12 education, including changes to the state’s social studies requirements, a requirement for districts to provide computer literacy programs and for the State Board of Education to develop new computer science curriculum standards.

But the one that drew the sharpest disagreement concerned changes to the AIM HIGH grant program in higher education, which is currently funded equally between the state and state universities.

Under the bill, universities where 49% or more of the students qualify for federal Pell grants would only have to fund 20% of a student’s AIM HIGH award while universities where fewer than 49% of students receive Pell grants would have to fund 60% of the award.

The intent of that provision was to lower the cost to schools with smaller endowment funds such as Chicago State University, which last year returned $800,000 of the $1 million in state funds it was allotted, saying it could not afford to pay for its share of the match.

The bill passed with Peters, Tarver and Buckner in support.

“The Black community and our allies have demonstrated that we will no longer tolerate discrimination and racism,” Tarver said in a statement. “We must invest in Black-owned businesses, ensure that students have access to affordable education, and fight against those who are more focused on maintaining the status quo than protecting people from the violence that plagues our communities.”

In terms of K-12 education, the bill includes a required assessment for children entering kindergarten that would evaluate their literacy, language, mathematics, and social and emotional development skills. It also prohibits the assessment from being used to prevent a child from enrolling in kindergarten or as the sole measure to determine whether a student should be promoted to the next grade level.

Another provision of the bill would allow students who receive intervention services before they turn 3 years old to continue to access those services until the beginning of the school year after their third birthday.

The bill would also create two new programs – Freedom Schools and the Whole Child Task Force – both with the intent of offering additional resources and opportunities to Black students.

Under the Freedom Schools program, Black students would have a supplemental learning opportunity – possibly over the summer – at public schools, with a focus on Black history, developing leadership skills and providing an understanding of the tenets of the civil rights movement. The program would also establish a grant program through the State Board of Education dedicated to improving educational outcomes for Black students.

The Whole Child Task Force recognizes the impact that a traumatic childhood has on young students, that childhood trauma is a greater issue for minority children who live in poverty, and that the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated these problems for many vulnerable children.

The task force would define trauma-responsive school, provide training and resources “to create and sustain a system of support for trauma-responsive schools,” and describe the state’s role in this process. It would also include a method for data collection, and an opportunity for input from stakeholders.

Other provisions of the bill would automatically enroll students in accelerated courses if they meet certain standards, and establish required computer science standards and courses in the state’s curriculum.

CTU bargaining bill passes; effort to create elected Chicago Public Schools board fails

A bill expanding the Chicago Teachers Union’s collective bargaining rights passed the Senate after passing the House in 2019, going to Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s desk, though a legislative effort to create an elected school board to replace the mayor-appointed, seven-member Chicago Board of Education did not pass the General Assembly.

Peters, Tarver and Buckner all supported HB 2275. WTTW reports that union officials say it would allow the union to negotiate over staffing, working time and location, and health and safety issues. Pritzker said he will "take a serious look" at the bill, though Mayor Lori Lightfoot opposed it.

HB 2267, which passed the lower chamber in 2019 with Tarver's support (Buckner had an excused absence) did not come for a vote in the Senate, however.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot's office told Chalkbeat Chicago that she "feels strongly that the current proposal would lead to instability for CPS" and believed the bill, which would have created an elected 21-member body, would have made the school board "unworkable."

Peters, for his part, laid the failure to pass the bill through his chamber at Lightfoot's feet.

Gettinger reported from Chicago. Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation. The Herald is a member of the Illinois Press Association.

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