This editorial appeared in the Nov. 10, 2017, edition of The (Champaign) News-Gazette:
The Illinois Legislature can't help itself: It dictates to local government what it should do — without providing funding.
Illinois legislators do two things when they have more will than wallet.
They spend money the state doesn't have. And they order local units of government to carry out duties that the locals must fund on their own, a long-standing practice known as "unfunded mandates."
Legislators were at their unfunded-mandate best this week when they completed the override of Gov. Bruce Rauner's veto of House Bill 2977 that, as the bill description states, "requires public elementary schools, beginning with the 2018-2019 school year, to offer at least one unit of instruction in cursive writing."
The legislation "provides that school districts shall, by policy, determine at what grade level or levels students are to be offered cursive writing, provided that such instruction must be offered before students complete grade 5."
Cursive — writing in which the strokes of the letters are joined in each word — is a good thing. The three R's — reading, writing and arithmetic — are, or once were, considered the foundations of a basic skills-oriented education program.
But over the years, as computer keyboards have become more commonly used, the teaching of cursive writing is not as widespread as it once was. So, too, is the teaching of clear writing, which is fundamental to the increasingly lost art of comprehensible communications.
This mandate — like all mandates — is aimed at addressing what the Legislature considers to be a problem: students' increasing inability to do things as basic as writing, not printing, their names.
The problem is that, as unsuccessful Illinois gubernatorial candidate Jim Ryan once stated, "There are a lot of good ideas. But you can't fund them all."
That was the point Gov. Rauner made in his veto message when he cited a fundamental reality of responsible policymaking and budgeting.
"If the General Assembly believes that cursive writing instruction should be required in elementary schools because it will improve student outcomes, it should be included in the Illinois State Learning Standards and funded accordingly," he said.
He could have gone on. If the Legislature believes the unfunded cursive mandate is so important, it could repeal one or two less important unfunded mandates it previously placed on the schools.
But legislators can't do that. Caught up in the sense of their own self-importance, undisciplined in identifying priorities and looking to curry favor with lobbyists pushing the issue of the day, they simply order someone else — in this case the schools — to carry out legislators' wishes on their own dime.
What's this going to cost the hundreds of state school districts? Who knows, and, from the Legislature's viewpoint, who cares?
The bills' financial note states that "HB 2977 will have a fiscal impact on school districts; however, the specific amount is not known."
There's another irony.
Financial notes are attached to legislation so that legislators will — supposedly — understand the financial ramifications of decisions they make. What's the point of a financial note that, effectively, states "Beats me"?
It's this kind of irresponsible approach to policymaking — the inability to say no — that gets states in financial trouble. After legislators have spent all that they have and more, they place burdens like this on units of local government that will, inevitably, land in the lap of taxpayers.
That's not to say, of course, that cursive writing shouldn't be taught. But that decision is better left to local school board members and educators than legislators who won't take financial responsibility for their decisions.