CHICAGO – Lawmakers are looking at several ways to improve learning outcomes and access for young students in Illinois.
On Thursday, March 23, members of the House of Representatives approved a proposal that would require school boards in Illinois to provide full-day kindergarten starting with the 2027-2028 school year.
The measure, House Bill 2396, was met with bipartisan, though not universal, support, passing out of the House on Thursday on an 87-23 vote.
“I think we can all recognize that our children are our most important resource in the state of Illinois,” Mary Beth Canty, D-Arlington Heights, said on the House floor Thursday. “As we look to move forward with our pre-K program and the governor’s smart start program, I hope we can recognize that kindergarten is a pivotal piece of a child’s learning journey.”
Some lawmakers were uneasy with the potential cost implications for local school districts, particularly stemming from potential increases in staffing needs and facility space requirements.
“When this goes into effect in 2027, are we going to be ramped up enough to be able to provide additional teachers throughout kindergartens across Illinois?” Rep. Dan Swanson, R-Alpha, said during debate over the bill.
The worry about funding is echoed by some in the education field, including the Illinois Association of School Administrators, or IASA. The association recorded its opposition to an earlier form of the bill when it went through committee earlier this month alongside the Illinois Association of School Boards and the Illinois Principals Association.
IASA chief of staff Emily Warnecke said in an interview that her organization supports the movement toward full-day kindergarten around the state. But she said they are still concerned about a requirement that would force districts to raise their own capital funding to expand school facilities to accommodate full-day programs.
“The vast majority of districts who don’t offer (full-day kindergarten), don’t offer it because they don’t have the space,” Warnecke said.
Currently, about 80 percent of districts in Illinois offer full-day kindergarten, according to Canty.
The bill sets up a “Full-Day Kindergarten Task Force” to study the best way to implement the expansion of full-day kindergarten. The task force will also be responsible for determining the criteria for districts’ eligibility for a two-year extension to the deadline for rolling out full-day kindergarten.
Canty said in an interview that she is working on securing funding for the expansion.
“I have had some really great conversations with the budgeteers here in the House and with the governor’s team,” she said.
The bill now goes to the Senate for consideration.
On Friday, March 24, the Senate unanimously approved Senate Bill 2243 from Sen. Kimberly Lightford, D-Westchester, that would require the Illinois State Board of Education to develop a “comprehensive literacy plan.”
In 2022, nearly 38 percent of Illinois’ 4th grade students did not meet grade level reading standards, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. This is roughly average and is not significantly lower than the nation’s overall reading scores.
“Today’s students who struggle to read are tomorrow’s adults — adults who desperately need literacy to sign a lease agreement, fill out a job application, manage their own health care, support their children’s education and participate in democracy,” Lightford said on the Senate floor Friday.
Deborah MacPhee, a researcher and professor at Illinois State University, said early literacy education has become politicized with debates between competing systems of reading instruction.
MacPhee said she liked that the bill requires the plan to involve “education stakeholders.” She said this will contribute to the ongoing conversation around what sorts of educational programs teachers should use.
In a 2022 study published in the journal Reading Horizons, MacPhee and her team found that 97 percent of Illinois teachers use phonics in their classrooms to teach reading. Despite the near universal adoption of this method, there is diversity across the state as to what programs are being used. Of the 80 percent of teachers using published curriculum for their phonics instruction, at least 41 different programs are used.
“We have to be educating teachers to be using programs effectively,” she said.
Lightford’s plan is not the only bill at the Statehouse in recent weeks aimed at improving childhood literacy. Rep. Mary Flowers, D-Chicago, introduced a bill that would require schools to use phonics to teach reading, though it was met with pushback from teachers’ unions.
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