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CAPITOL RECAP: February 4, 2023

Capitol News Illinois

A look at the week's news from around Illinois

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GUN LAWSUIT: A temporary restraining order that partially blocks Illinois’ new assault weapons ban from being enforced will remain in place after a divided state appellate court panel’s ruling Tuesday, Jan. 31.

The restraining order was issued Jan. 20 by Effingham County Circuit Judge Joshua Morrison, but it applies only to the 800 or so gun owners and firearms dealers named as plaintiffs in the suit. The case was filed by southern Illinois attorney Thomas DeVore, the unsuccessful Republican candidate for attorney general in 2022. On Thursday, Feb. 2, a White County judge issued a similar order for a separate set of plaintiffs.

At the appellate level, in a 2-1 ruling, the justices said plaintiffs in the Effingham County case made a plausible argument that the law violates their rights to equal protection under the law. Under the law, some categories of people – active and retired law enforcement officers, correctional officers and military personnel on active duty, for example – may purchase and possess those weapons. Other groups, such as retired military personnel or those who are not on active duty, are barred from obtaining assault-style weapons after Jan. 1, 2024.

Attorneys for the state argued that it was reasonable to exempt certain groups of people who have extensive training in the use of such firearms. But the court majority rejected that argument, saying: “The fundamental rights at stake require lawmakers to ‘narrowly tailor’ legislation to effectuate its purpose.”

In accepting the argument that equal protection rights are at stake, the appellate court also rejected arguments that the General Assembly violated the Illinois Constitution’s requirements that bills deal with only one subject, that they be read three times on different days in both chambers, and the guarantee of due process.

Justice Barry L. Vaughn wrote the decision. Justice Mark M. Boie concurred in the opinion while Justice James R. Moore dissented in part, saying he would have overturned the circuit court entirely by rejecting the equal protection argument.

The law bans the sale and purchase of a long list of semi-automatic weapons defined as “assault weapons,” .50 caliber rifles and large-capacity magazines, as well as various devices that effectively convert other weapons into something identical to one of the banned weapons.

The ruling means that the state is prevented from enforcing the law against the named plaintiffs in the case. The decision is expected to be appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court.

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TEACHER SHORTAGE: Illinois schools are still grappling with a teacher shortage that seems to only be getting worse, a recent survey by the Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools shows.

This mirrors the state’s own data, which shows Illinois’ teacher shortage is at the highest level in the last five years. More than 5,300 classroom positions, including administrative and support personnel, went unfilled in 2022, according to the Illinois State Board of Education.

As a result, teachers often have to absorb unsupervised students into their existing classes or fill in for subject areas in which they have no background.

According to their 2022 survey of more than 700 districts, 68 percent of districts reported fewer teacher applicants than the year before. And 45 percent of districts reported the shortage in their school had worsened from the year prior.

One area of focus, IARSS President Mark Klaisner said, is improving the pipeline between education institutions and Illinois’ K-12 schools by starting educator recruitment earlier. That could include programs that allow middle schoolers to shadow teachers.

He also advocated for dual credit programs that allow students to earn some college credit while in high school.

The report also calls for direct state funding to key areas to encourage more diversity within the profession. This includes increasing funding from $4.2 million to $7 million annually for the Minority Teachers of Illinois scholarship; investing more money into the Illinois Teachers Loan Repayment Program which helps pay down student loan debt for Illinois college students that qualify to teach in low-income areas; and further increasing the state’s Monetary Award Program by $50 million.

To better fill gaps in the short term, Klaisner pointed to incentivizing teachers to complete additional subject endorsements, which can be done through the ISBE website.

Other recommendations include observing how districts have used federal pandemic-era Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds to help teachers get provisional licenses in shortage subject areas. Additionally, the survey recommends strengthening the state’s educator prep programs by showing which paths have stronger results in teacher placement and success.

Several survey respondents also noted that a 2010 state law creating a lower tier of pension benefits for new employees has made the teaching profession less desirable from a compensation standpoint.

The survey also showed strong support for policies increasing the number of days retired teachers can substitute without impacting their retirement benefits and allowing currently enrolled teaching students with at least 90 credit hours to be licensed as substitute teachers.

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COLLEGE BOARD CONTROVERSY: Gov. JB Pritzker this week asked the College Board for more information about its reasoning for changing the final framework of a new Advanced Placement course in African American studies after it had been criticized by Florida’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis.

“Although we are pleased to see many core ideas remain in place, there are still significant issues with the way the College Board has chosen to present this curriculum,” Pritzker said in an email statement. “Refusing to name the components of Black history that Gov. DeSantis is most afraid of like intersectionality, feminism and queer Black life but still including them in the curriculum can be viewed as a weak attempt to please extremists.”

The College Board – the not-for-profit organization that administers the SAT test as well as AP courses through which high school students can earn college credit – first released a pilot course in August in 60 high schools. It then spent months refining the course with feedback from college professors and high school teachers before releasing the final framework on Wednesday, Feb. 1, the first day of Black History Month in the United States.

But the subject immediately became embroiled in culture war politics when conservatives attacked it for promoting “critical race theory” – the idea that racial disparities are the result of systemic prejudices that are woven into the fabric of institutions. DeSantis blocked it from being offered in his state, claiming it violated a Florida law known as the “Stop Wrongs Against Our Kids and Employees Act,” or the Stop WOKE Act.

According to reports, DeSantis specifically objected to the teaching of concepts like “intersectionality” – the overlapping of categories such as race, class and gender and other sources of discrimination to create unique dynamics and effects – as well as Black queer studies, the Black Lives Matter movement and the reparations movement.

That prompted a backlash from Democratic lawmakers in Florida as well as Pritzker, who wrote to the College Board on Jan. 25, warning it not to change the curriculum or cave in to pressure from conservatives like DeSantis.

The College Board, meanwhile, issued a news release announcing the final framework and addressing controversy.

“No states or districts have seen the official framework that is released, much less provided feedback on it,” the board said. “This course has been shaped only by the input of experts and long-standing AP principles and practices.”

A spokeswoman for Pritzker said Wednesday that any local district in Illinois that wants to offer the course is free to do so.

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NEW SUPT: The Illinois State Board of Education announced Tuesday, Jan. 31, that Elgin-based School District U-46 Superintendent Tony Sanders will become the next state superintendent of education.

Sanders, 53, will succeed Carmen Ayala, who announced in November that she would retire effective Jan. 31. ISBE said Sanders will take over the post in late February while Deputy Education Officer Krish Mohip will serve as interim superintendent during the transition.

Sanders has been superintendent of the Elgin-area district since 2014. It is the second-largest district in Illinois, serving more than 35,000 students across five high schools and nearly 50 elementary and middle schools, according to the most recent state report card. Of those students, 46 percent are classified as low-income, and 39 percent are English language learners.

Gov. JB Pritzker recommended Sanders for the job.

“Dr. Tony Sanders is an extraordinary choice for State Superintendent of Education,” Pritzker said in a statement. “Dr. Sanders’ breadth of experience as superintendent of School District U-46 and his entire background have prepared him to take on this role. His focus on innovation, social emotional development, and academic excellence make him an extraordinary pick.”

According to ISBE, Sanders expanded the Elgin district’s offerings during his time as superintendent, adding full-day kindergarten for all students, expanding the district’s dual language program and establishing an alternative high school, the DREAM Academy, to reduce expulsions and serve students in need of trauma-informed care.

Before becoming U-46 superintendent, Sanders served as the district’s chief of staff for 11 years following a stretch as the district’s chief communications officer.

He received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Illinois Springfield, a master’s degree in business administration from the New York Institute of Technology, a Chief School Business Official endorsement from Northern Illinois University and his doctorate in education from Aurora University.

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COVID DISASTER: Illinois will no longer be under a disaster proclamation as of May 11, Gov. JB Pritzker announced Tuesday, Jan. 31.

That’s the same day President Joe Biden will end the national public health emergency, which just passed the three-year mark last week.

Pritzker had declared a public health emergency two days before the World Health Organization’s pandemic determination and has renewed his disaster proclamation every 30 days since then.

The repeated proclamations gave the governor authority for actions such as closing schools, issuing stay-at-home orders and mandating masks and vaccines. But they were a source of consternation for Pritzker’s political opponents.

The governor had slowly rolled back his COVID-19 mandates over the past year, including an action in October when he reversed the requirement for vaccines, testing and masks in health care settings.

But Illinois is still one of seven states with some sort of COVID-related emergency proclamation on its books.

These disaster declarations have allowed those states – including Republican-run Texas – to continue benefiting from COVID-era bumps in federal reimbursements for programs like Medicaid, additional benefits for those on food stamps and the ability to quickly deploy emergency workers to respond to areas in need, like hospitals with severely short staffing.

Pritzker said 1.4 million children in Illinois received nutrition support under the additional Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits. He also pointed to the expansion of telehealth during the pandemic under his disaster proclamation, which has largely been adapted into state law after it proved popular with doctors and patients alike.

The governor’s disaster proclamation also allowed for the activation of the State Emergency Operations Center, which brokered cooperation between the leaders of different state agencies in response to COVID-19.

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government. It is distributed to more than 400 newspapers statewide, as well as hundreds of radio and TV stations. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.