"We are not a 59-member school board." My fellow state senators repeatedly hear that refrain from me when the Illinois General Assembly debates mandates on local school districts.
I make that point for two reasons. First, most members of the Illinois General Assembly are not education professionals and bring less education knowledge to the table than local education specialists. Second, Illinois parents deserve to have their children's education decisions made by officials whom they can communicate with and, if necessary, hold accountable.
It's the latter reason that troubles me now upon the issuance of guidance from the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) on June 23 for the fall school restart. ISBE plays a critical role in P-12 education in Illinois. But that role should be in support of parents, local educators, and school boards who bear the primary responsibility for our children's education. ISBE should assist and supplement their work, not supplant it.
As a parent of boys entering seventh and ninth grades, I am personally acquainted with my local school board members and school superintendent. Like other parents, if a school policy hurts my sons, I have the ability to contact school administrators and school board members and voice my concerns. On the other hand, the average parent has no meaningful way of contacting ISBE to object to ISBE-generated policies that harm their children.
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This past May, ISBE forbade local school districts from conducting any sort of indoor graduation event, citing safety concerns. Furious parents became even more incensed when, shortly thereafter, the Mayor of Chicago conducted an indoor graduation ceremony for 90 firefighter academy graduates — precisely the type of ceremony ISBE had deemed unsafe. On June 4, ISBE announced policy for summer school activities that gave school districts detailed guidance on student hand-washing and school bus seating. Now, ISBE's latest directive, to put it bluntly, paints a picture of schools that none of us would consider normal.
In its latest guidance, ISBE mandates masks for all children 2 years and older. ISBE prohibits occupation of a space by more than 50 children, ruling out effective use of cafeterias and auditoriums. Limits on proximity likely make it impossible to hold athletic events. These policies were produced by a closed task force group, without public input or the involvement of elected officials from the Illinois General Assembly.
Our local school districts do not need more mandates from ISBE on safety measures. In conjunction with local public health officials, school districts are more than capable of setting safety protocols. Controversial measures, such as mask requirements and mandatory temperature checks, should remain the province of local public health and education experts. Furthermore, parents are much more likely to comply with safety requirements if they believe the school district has listened to their concerns before making a policy decision.
Everyone talks about the importance of school board elections. This is because school board members, in theory, have control over our children's education and answer directly to the constituents of their school district. We should keep it that way and insist that school boards, not the Illinois State Board of Education, have the final say on how to safely reopen their schools this fall.