GOP pushes mandate relief for schools

SPRINGFIELD — Gov. Bruce Rauner and Republican colleagues on Friday rolled out legislation they say would let local schools make their own decisions and save money on non-instructional costs, thereby putting more tax dollars in the classroom

Democrats, however, said they’ll be on board only if the proposals can save money through efficiency and better practices, not just decreased pay and benefits for janitors, bus drivers, cooks and the like.

“As a mother of three, I think local school districts and parents should be deciding what’s best for our children, not Springfield,” said Lt. Gov. Evelyn Sanguinetti, R-Wheaton. “We need to give the power and flexibility back to local communities and parents, and this bill does just that.”

The GOP bills, announced in a Lombard news conference, focus on freeing school districts from state mandates and saving money in three areas: physical education, drivers education and non-instructional services, sponsors said.

While physical education is important, the requirement it be taught everyday was hurting teachers’ ability to offer and students’ ability to take advantage of advanced placement classes, vocational training and computer education, said Rep. Ron Sandack, lead sponsor of House Bill 6164.

“Our bill simply says that the school board can make a decision to waive physical education when a student is an athlete or engaged in physical activity and education outside her or his curriculum and (the school board can) set a policy so that some flexibility and control at the local level can occur,” Sandack said.

“So, too, with drivers education,” he said. “That is something that can be third-party contracted out if a school board wants to do that.”

Sen. Jason Barickman of Bloomington, lead sponsor of Senate Bill 3098, said much the same is true for non-instructional services, including janitorial, maintenance, security and transportation work.

Those are “activities the school district can choose locally, to obtain service from others who can provide them, possibly in a more efficient way,” Barickman said.

“We need to remove the rules that tie the hands of our schools all around the state,” he said. “This relief, to me, is necessary.”

Said Gov. Bruce Rauner, “We need to get the resources out of the bureaucracy and put them in the classrooms with our teachers and with our students.”

Backers say the unfunded-mandate relief in the bills could mean a savings of $200 million annually for Illinois school districts.

Democrats said they’ll look at the GOP proposals, but they’re not likely to support the measures if the end result amounts to taking pay and benefits from school districts’ non-teaching employees.

“School districts may contract with third-party providers today,” said Sen. Don Harmon, D-Oak Park. “The third parties merely have to demonstrate that they will achieve savings through better business practices, and not just by cutting the bus drivers’ wages or taking health insurance away from the lunch ladies.”

Steve Brown, spokesman for House Speaker Michael Madigan, a Chicago Democrat, said House Democrats would be happy to consider any proposal that saves money for Illinois taxpayers as long as those measures “do not drive down standards of living for middle class families.”

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