When public school students in Illinois returned to their lessons this year, education was undeniably different. The pandemic has brought to the forefront the racial and economic inequities that have long existed in public education. Students also returned to class following a summer of social unrest over the killings of a number of black people at the hands of police.
In response this week, an education bill crafted by the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus passed the state legislature and is headed to Gov. JB Pritzker’s desk. It’s part of a package of bills advanced by the caucus.
State Sen. Kimberly Lightford, D-Maywood, sponsored the education bill and said it was drafted in the wake of the national racial reckoning.
“We must leverage this moment in time to undo damaging policies and procedures built into our state system of law and government that have created deep inequities and opportunity gaps in education,” Lightford said on the Senate floor.
The sweeping measure tries to tackle racial inequity on a range of issues, from early childhood education to workforce development. The bill includes a mix of concrete changes, like expanding early childhood education and new programs for students who’ve fallen behind during the pandemic, as well as calling for task forces to address issues over time. It’s unclear how a cash-strapped state will pay for these new initiatives.
Here are five ways the bill tries to reverse racial inequities.
Taking on pandemic learning loss
Inequities that existed in schools before the pandemic were further exacerbated over the last 10 months by a digital divide and unevenly distributed resources. The education bill takes a stab at trying to address that. It calls for a special council to recommend a multi-year recovery plan, including closing the digital divide and evaluating how much kids have actually learned during the pandemic. The bill calls for more resources and programs to aid students, like summer bridge programs and tutoring.
Rep. Carol Ammons, D-Champaign, said some provisions in the bill were designed to be funded by the state’s evidence-based school funding model. Lawmakers will be talking about cuts in coming budget negotiations, but Ammons said efforts of equity should receive funding.
“Somebody might have to give up a little something for somebody else to benefit,” Ammons said during a floor debate.
Boosting early childhood education
The bill expands services for kids five and younger and calls for the creation of a “Whole Child” task force. That group will be tasked with analyzing services and making recommendations to ensure early childhood programs move toward “restorative, anti-racist and trauma responsive” strategies.
The bill’s sponsors also note that the majority of workers in early education are women of color who are often paid low wages. However, early childhood services are often lauded as one of the most important parts of child development. The bill calls for the Department of Human Services and the State Board of Education to work toward addressing the wide pay gap that exists between early childhood workers and K-12 teachers. It also calls for benefits like debt relief, scholarships and access to higher degrees and certifications for workers.
Expanding high school course access
The bill tries to confront the reality that some students are at a disadvantage in applying for college because of limited course offerings at their high schools.
For example, state universities in Illinois require applicants to meet certain course requirements, said Ammons, chief sponsor of the bill. But not every high school, particularly those in low-income areas, offer the courses. The bill calls for high schools to provide the necessary courses for students to get into any of the state’s public institutions. If a high school does not offer the course, it must find an alternative. That could include partnering with another school district or offering an online course.
Along those lines, the bill also calls for equitable access to advanced courses. The bill says students should be automatically enrolled in the next level advanced course if they meet or exceed standards of a given subject. The bill also adds a requirement that high school graduates complete at least two years of a foreign language, two years of lab sciences and a computer science course.
But some who voted against the bill said the new requirement will burden some schools who struggle to attract teachers for core subjects.
“Access and opportunity, I’m all for,” said Rep. Avery Bourne, R-Litchfield. “Mandating that every single student have these increased graduation requirements, I believe is going to increase students that are not able to graduate, which is doing them a disservice.”
Increasing minority teaching candidates
“We are seeking to increase the number of black male teachers for my grandson, who I hope one day will have a black male teacher as he matriculates through K-12,” Rep. Ammons said during the floor debate before the bill passed this week.
The state continues to endure a teacher shortage, and there are even fewer teachers of color. According to the State Board of Education, in 2020 slightly more than 82% of the state’s teachers were white and nearly 77% were women. The bill calls for an expansion of the Minority Teachers of Illinois Scholarship program. It’s calling for at least 35% of the funds to be set aside for qualified male minority applicants, with a priority on black male applicants beginning in fiscal year 2023.
Making college scholarships more accessible
The bill tries to make it easier for smaller colleges to access certain state scholarships by creating a sliding scale that’s more affordable.
For example, under the state’s AIM High scholarship program, participating state colleges match state scholarship money. But Ammons said some schools like Chicago State University had trouble matching those funds and ended up giving back $800,000 to the state. That’s money that never made it into the hands of deserving students.
“They returned it because they don’t have a huge endowment to cover the matching portion, which is what this [bill] is designed to do,” she said.
But several lawmakers, including Rep. Norine Hammond, R-Macomb, said the bill would allow colleges to offer less matching funds, giving less money to students.
“This is going to significantly increase student debt,” Hammond said to Ammons during the floor debate. “And you are cutting dollars to the very students that you represent.”
Ammons denied this would be the result. She said it would instead help students of color who go to smaller institutions, like Chicago State. Chicago Public Schools graduates, who are primarily Black and Latinx, make up a large number of students who attend Chicago State.
A recent study from the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research found that disparities in bachelor’s degree completion for Black young men from CPS have widened over time. The group had one of the largest increases in high school graduation rates, growing 26 percentage points from 2007 to 2019. But bachelor’s degree completion in 2019 declined slightly to 29% for those immediately enrolled in a four-year college. The study’s authors said colleges and universities have a responsibility to create an inclusive learning environment and to provide supports.