Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Legislative action

By Rachel Wells with Jamey Dunn contributing

Race to the Top

The legislature on Wednesday approved two measures that better position Illinois to receive up to $500 million for improving the performance of low-achieving schools through the federally funded "Race to the Top" program.

If signed by Gov. Pat Quinn, SB 315 would place student performance at the core of teacher, principal and superintendent evaluations. The evaluations would remain exempt from disclosure under Illinois' Freedom of Information Act, a point of contention in negotiations earlier this week.

Senate sponsor Kimberly Lightford, a Maywood Democrat, responded to critics in the House who said the bill might not benefit downstate schools. “Even if they're a smaller school district, they benefit versus a larger school district. In fact it's easier for the smaller school districts to implement versus the larger school districts. The city of Chicago, for example, we have to do a phase-in period for them," she said.

Sen. J. Bradley Burzynski, a Clare Republican, said he opposed the bill because the state currently has no plan in place for some of its requirements, such as state model teacher evaluations. "The devil's always in the details. The problem I have with this piece of legislation is exactly that," Burzynski said. He argued that the measure would leave much of the decision-making he felt the legislature should be responsible for up to the relatively few members of the state education board.

The second Race to the Top bill, SB 616, would allow for expanded alternative teacher certification for nonprofit programs such as "Teach for America." That bill passed both chambers without opposition.

In approving both bills, Illinois can more adequately fulfill Race to the Top application requirements. The application is due next week. Funding awards will be announced in April.

Cemetery regulation
The House also sent legislation to the governor's desk Wednesday. HB 1188, a response to the Burr Oak Cemetery scandal (see Illinois Issues, September 2009, page 13), calls for licensing and standardized record keeping in the industry.

Opponents took issue with part of the bill that requires cemetery owners to attempt to control traffic from funeral processions. Rep Bill Black, a Danville Republican, said it was not realistic to expect owners to orchestrate the traffic created by a large procession, especially if many vehicles were going into a small cemetery.

Black called the bill “reactionary” and said it would penalize small cemeteries for the acts of criminals who would have broken the law no matter what it was. “Evidently [the individuals involved in Burr Oak] didn’t care. The almighty dollar overruled any sense of common decency.”

Rep. Bill Brady, a Bloomington Republican and licensed funeral director, supported the bill. “It’s not perfect, but it’s a bill that did not paint all the cemeteries in Illinois with the same brush. And it has some real reforms, and it has reforms that I don’t believe are burdensome to those smaller cemeteries.”

"Meritorious Good Time”
Also in the governor's hands after today's legislative session is SB 1013, a measure calling for inmates to serve no fewer than 60 days before being given any time off for good behavior.

The bill is a response to the secret early release program "Meritorious Good Time Push" that let prisoners, some violent, free after spending only a few weeks in prison.

The legislature did not take up SB 1425, a plan to allow the state to borrow $250 million to pay Medicaid bills and leverage matching federal dollars, and a proposal to move Quinn’s budget address back from February to March. Lawmakers are expected to return to Springfield after the February 2 primary election.

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