SPRINGFIELD — A new survey of Illinois school districts shows most are continuing to have trouble filling open teaching positions with qualified teachers and even more are having difficulty hiring substitute teachers.
It’s a problem that has existed in the state for many years and one that experts attribute to a variety of factors, such as low pay and the difficulty in attracting new teachers to work in certain parts of the state.
The survey has been conducted each of the past four years by the Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools. Regional superintendents are in charge of supervising schools in the state’s 38 educational regions and operating regional offices of education. They also act as a kind of conduit of information and support between the Illinois State Board of Education and the state’s 853 local school districts.
“You know, it’s not like we just stubbed our toe, this is a crisis,” IARSS President Mark Klaisner said in an interview. “It’s getting worse each year. And when we asked them to look forward, they said, you know, in the next five years, we don’t see this changing.”
The latest survey was conducted in early October and included responses from 591 of the state’s 853 districts. Of those responding, 77 percent said they have a teacher shortage problem while 93 percent said they have a problem hiring substitute teachers, particularly since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Individual districts have responded to the shortage in a variety of ways, such as canceling the offering of some classes or switching them to online formats as well as filling critical positions with teachers who are not fully qualified to teach in a particular grade level or subject area.
In fact, the districts that responded to the survey reported a combined total of 938 open teaching positions – 17 percent of the 5,414 positions that districts were looking to fill – were either unfilled or filled by someone who was not certified in that grade level or subject area. That percentage, however, is actually down from previous surveys. In 2017, districts reported that 28 percent of their open positions were either vacant or filled by someone not fully qualified.
The largest number of those was in special education at all grade levels, where 195 positions were either vacant or filled by an unqualified teacher. In terms of percentages, though, computer science teachers were also hard to come by. Forty-one percent of the open computer science positions were either vacant or filled by an unqualified teacher.
Districts also reported having trouble filling elementary education, math, physical education and science positions.
The survey also found that 257 classes offered in the participating districts had been canceled and 195 had been moved online because school administrators could not find educators to teach them.
The severity of shortages also varied by region. In west central Illinois, for example, 89 percent of the districts responding to the survey reported having a teacher shortage problem, compared to only 55 percent of the districts in northeast Illinois.
Record pension debt
A new report by the credit rating agency Moody’s says Illinois will set a new record this year when it reports a total net pension liability of more than $300 billion, the highest of any state in the nation.
As of June 30, 2020, the report stated, the total unfunded liabilities of the state’s five pension systems stood at $317 billion, a 19 percent increase from the prior year. That was largely due to historically low interest rates, which have depressed pension fund earnings throughout the country.
With the state’s gross domestic product, or GDP, estimated to have fallen 2.5 percent in calendar year 2020, that pension liability amounts to roughly 37 percent of the state’s total economic output, up from a range of 28-32 percent over the previous four years.
When combined with other long-term liabilities, including retiree health care and bonded indebtedness, Moody’s estimates the state’s total liability ratio will amount to 48 percent of GDP for the fiscal year 2021 reporting cycle.
The report says that 80 percent of the increase is attributable to falling interest rates, but weaker-than-expected investment performance also played a role. The Illinois Teachers’ Retirement System, the largest of the five pension systems, reported investment returns of just 0.52 percent during the reporting period, far below its target of 7 percent.
“Illinois is an outlier among states both for fiscal challenges from pension expenses and for its limited capacity to modify the benefit packages that drive these expenses,” the report states. “The state allocates about 30 percent of its budget to retirement benefits and debt service, a ‘fixed-cost’ ratio more than three times the median for states, and its constitution gives public workers some of the most ironclad retirement benefit protections available.”
The report goes on to say that the amount that the state contributes to its pension funds is actually far less than what is needed to prevent continuing growth in their unfunded liabilities. Under current law, the contribution amounts are set each year at a rate aimed at achieving a 90 percent funded ratio by 2045.
In a separate report to the state’s Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability, or COGFA, the consulting firm Moody’s Analytics, a subsidiary of Moody’s Corp., said the state’s fiscal condition could hamper its ability to recover smoothly from the recession.
Kelly named Dem party chair
Illinois’ Democratic State Central Committee elected U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly as its new chair Wednesday night on a razor thin margin.
Kelly, who lives in suburban Matteson and represents the 2nd Congressional District, edged out Chicago Ald. Michelle Harris with just over 50 percent of the weighted vote of the 36 members of the Central Committee – there are two for each congressional district. The 2nd District spans from the south side of Chicago and its suburbs to south of Kankakee.
Kelly was backed by U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, while Gov. JB Pritzker and U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth backed Harris. The congresswoman edged out the alderwoman by about 3 percent of the weighted vote.
Kelly is now the first black woman to be elected chair of the party and the first person who is not Michael Madigan to hold the post since 1998, aside from vice chair Karen Yarbrough, who replaced Madigan on an interim basis after his resignation last month.
A pair of legal opinions that circulated in the run-up to the Madigan replacement vote stated that Kelly would not be able to raise or distribute “soft money,” which refers to money spent on state and local elections, although she would have no restrictions on fundraising for federal races.
Under Madigan, the Democratic Party of Illinois was one of the main fundraisers for candidates running for the state House.
Several Democratic committeepersons, including former Senate President John Cullerton, cited the concerns about fundraising as a reason he could not back Kelly.
But Committeewoman and state Sen. Cristina Castro, D-Elgin, said Kelly has a vision for what DPI fundraising can become – a mechanism for party building instead of mainly supporting House Democrats.
Many pointed to a decentralization of fundraising from what had become a Madigan-focused effort during his two-plus decades controlling the party. Several, including Castro, said a decentralized approach could be better for the party’s brand across the state as political maps trend more red in downstate and rural areas.
Kelly said she does not believe fundraising will be an obstacle.
“We need to support and invest in the infrastructure that enables local parties to be effective in their effort to recruit and elect Democrats,” she said in her pitch to the committeepersons.
In a Senate Tourism and Hospitality Committee hearing Thursday, State Comptroller Susana Mendoza said she is hopeful outdoor events can return as early as this summer with large indoor events such as conventions and trade shows beginning in the fall.
Mendoza said that the return to holding events would be gradual and based on a number of factors, including COVID-19 transmission and vaccination rates.
The state’s COVID-19 seven-day rolling average was near a pandemic-low 2.4 percent for the sixth consecutive day Thursday, while hospitalizations continued to decrease and about 7.5 percent of the state’s population had been fully vaccinated.
Mendoza said she is hopeful the governor’s office will be receptive to a wider reopening approach this year.
Mendoza said allowing events and gatherings to resume safely in a quick and efficient manner would be key to jumpstarting an economic turnaround following the COVID-19 pandemic as the state works to return to a full reopening.
Citing numbers from the state’s tourism office, Mendoza said COVID-19-related shutdowns and event cancellations cost the state nearly a $500 million in tax revenue over the past year. Prior to the pandemic, tourism in the state brought in nearly $2.5 billion in sales tax revenue annually, she said.
Mendoza also said state hotel revenue fell from $300 million in fiscal year 2019 to $250 million in fiscal year 2020. In the first six months of the current fiscal year, the state has only brought in $42.5 million in hotel tax revenue, she said.
Some business leaders told the committee that they have been set back by the state’s current cap of 50 people for event gatherings under Phase 4 of the Restore Illinois guidelines. Phase 5 of the reopening plan would allow for a return of large-scale events with the necessary safety precautions, pending the widespread availability of a COVID-19 vaccine or treatment.
As a result of the federal government moving up projections that a vaccine could be available to the entire population by the end of May, business leaders asked the committee for a “ramp” approach to reopening under Phase 5 to allow events to resume in some capacity as soon as possible.
Benefits for some unemployed state residents provided under an aid program targeting mostly self-employed and gig workers will be capped at 50 weeks instead of 57, the state announced Wednesday.
The shortened period for benefits under the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program was triggered by a decline in the state’s unemployment rate.
The PUA program, which was first established by Congress last March, offers benefits to independent contractors, self-employed individuals, gig workers and others not covered by traditional state unemployment insurance.
After Congress renewed the program in December, eligible individuals could receive up to 57 weeks of PUA benefits. The law passed in December, the Continued Assistance Act, also extended regular state unemployment insurance benefits by seven weeks.
Both those seven-week benefit extensions have ended, according to a state news release. This means individuals eligible for PUA will receive up to 50 weeks of benefits, and those eligible for extended regular state unemployment insurance benefits will receive up to 13 weeks of benefits.
Roughly 40,000 individuals have been notified that they have exhausted their 50 weeks of PUA, according to Rebecca Cisco, a spokesperson for the Illinois Department of Employment Security.
A House committee on Wednesday advanced legislation that would create a task force to look into the feasibility of providing legal representation to individuals subject to deportation proceedings in the state.
House Bill 25, sponsored by Rep. Jennifer Gong-Gershowitz, D-Glenview, was the only agenda item at the Illinois House Committee on Immigration and Human Rights Wednesday.
Gong-Gershowitz said the task force would be uncompensated. While the task force itself does not require an appropriation of state funding, it would provide a report on the costs of legal representation for such individuals, as well as recommendations for what state or private funding may be available.
The task force would be required to submit a report of its findings and recommendations no later than July 1, 2022.
Immigration policy is largely determined by the federal government, and those at risk of being deported go through the federal system. But states can establish their own protections as well.
Federal law entitles illegal immigrants subject to deportation the right to a trial and to an attorney under the Sixth Amendment. But under current law, legal services for immigrants are at the individual’s own expense, unlike the process for U.S. citizens facing criminal convictions, who are provided publicly funded defense.
According to findings written into the bill, nearly two-thirds of all individuals facing immigration removal proceedings in the U.S. lack legal representation. In Illinois, “less than one in three individuals, generally, and less than one in eight individuals in detention were represented by counsel,” according to the bill.
HB 25 directs the seven-member task force – which will be appointed by the governor, the four legislative leaders, the attorney general and the secretary of the Department of Human Services – to examine universal representation for a “covered individual,” which includes any individual, regardless of age or state of residency, if they are facing removal proceedings in Illinois.
End to child support interest
The state is no longer charging interest on late child support payments that are made through the Department of Healthcare and Family Services unless it’s ordered by a court, and all of the outstanding interest charges that those parents owed have been zeroed out.
A spokesman for the agency said in an email that the total accrued interest penalties that were eliminated amounted to just over $2.7 billion.
DHFS made that announcement Monday, saying those interest charges fell disproportionately on low-income families and people of color.
The new policy applies to people enrolled in what’s known as the Title IV-D program, which refers to Title IV-D of the federal Social Security Act. That’s a child support collection program jointly administered by the federal government and the states.
In Illinois, the program is administered through DHFS. Although it is available to all parents who are owed child support, parents are automatically enrolled in it if they also receive certain kinds of federal assistance such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF. It also applies in some foster care and medical assistance cases.
Illinois had been one of only 15 states that automatically charged interest on late child support payments. But, in a bill passed last May and signed by Gov. JB Pritzker into law in August, the automatic interest penalty was repealed and DHFS was given authority to adopt administrative rules to determine how, and if, it would charge and enforce interest penalties.
Those new administrative rules took effect Jan. 1.
Isolation and restraint
A House committee agreed Wednesday to continue working on a bill that aims to end the use of physical restraints and isolation as a way of controlling misbehaving students in public school classrooms.
House Bill 219, sponsored by Rep. Jonathan Carroll, D-Northbrook, was introduced in response to a 2019 article by Pro Publica Illinois and the Chicago Tribune that documented the extent to which those practices are used in Illinois schools and the harmful effects they have on children.
If approved, the bill would prohibit the use of “prone restraint,” in which a person is held face-down on the floor or other surface while pressure is applied to the student’s body to keep him or her in that position, as well as mechanical and chemical restraint.
The bill also provides that time-outs, isolated time-outs and other forms of physical restraint could only be used when the student’s behavior poses an “imminent danger of serious physical harm to the student or to others,” and it would direct the Illinois State Board of Education to develop a plan for greatly reducing the use of those practices over the next three years.
Still, some Republicans on the committee, including Reps. Avery Bourne, of Morrisonville, and Steven Reick, of Woodstock, said they believed there should be an exception for the use of prone restraints, if a parent or guardian consents to its use, and Carroll agreed to pull the bill from consideration so he could meet with stakeholders to discuss drafting such an amendment.
Carroll said he would bring the bill back to the committee next week.
Resolution to condemn
Nearly three dozen Democratic members of the Illinois House of Representatives signed onto a resolution Monday to “condemn” a southern Illinois Republican lawmaker for attending a Jan. 6 rally in Washington, D.C. that preceded the violent riot at the U.S. Capitol.
House Resolution 132 also references a complaint filed Monday with Illinois Legislative Inspector General Carol Pope to investigate the actions of Rep. Chris Miller, of Oakland, on Jan. 6.
The Legislative Inspector General is responsible for investigating complaints of violations of any law, rule, or abuse of authority or other forms of misconduct by members of the General Assembly.
“Supporting and participating in insurrection against the government is way beyond the pale and violates our oath of office,” Rep. Bob Morgan, D-Deerfield, wrote in an email Tuesday to Capitol News Illinois. “The State of Illinois deserves to know what role Rep. Miller had in the riot of January 6 in Washington, D.C., and that is why I referred this matter to the Legislative Inspector General for proper investigation.”
The House resolution was co-sponsored by 33 House Democrats as of Tuesday, including House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch, of Hillside; Speaker Pro Tempore Jehan Gordon-Booth, of Peoria; and Majority Leader Greg Harris, of Chicago.
The resolution also criticizes Miller for allegedly adorning his truck with decal for an anti-government militia group, known as “The Three Percenters.”
Police torture lawsuit
One of the men who was tortured into giving a false confession by officers working under late Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge is suing the city and its former police officers for more than $66 million in damages.
Robert Smith, who was wrongfully convicted for a 1987 double murder, spent more than 33 years in prison but was declared innocent in November after successfully filing a claim with the state agency tasked with investigating police torture claims committed during Burge’s tenure, the Illinois Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission, in 2011.
The Illinois Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission, which was established by the state General Assembly in 2009, allows individuals to pursue torture claims in the court system that would otherwise be prevented by the statute of limitations. Claims evaluated by the commission must involve allegations that police tortured an individual to obtain a confession if that confession was then used to convict the individual.
Smith’s lawsuit claims the officers’ use of torture to coerce his confession and their fabrication of evidence at his trial amounts to a violation of his constitutional rights.
Right to Repair Act
Legislation backed by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group would require farming equipment manufacturers to make software required for repairs available to consumers for purchase.
House Bill 3061, introduced as the “Digital Right to Repair Act” in February by Democratic Rep. Michelle Mussman of Schaumburg, would mandate that manufacturers, by 2022, provide farmers with the same diagnostic materials available to official repair providers. It would also require the manufacturers to make parts necessary for repair, including software, available for purchase.
The legislation comes after the release of a report by the U.S. PIRG that alleges farmers are unable to sufficiently repair tractors purchased from John Deere and other manufacturers because they withhold the software necessary to do so.
Manufacturers have opposed providing the software on several grounds. They say it could jeopardize proprietary information and lead to the theft of trade secrets tied to programming. Giving farmers access to repair software could also allow them to make illegal modifications to their equipment, potentially leading to some farmers overriding safety and environmental controls placed in the vehicle software.
The Digital Right to Repair Act, which awaits assignment to a substantial committee in the House, includes a provision that prevents the legislation from being made “to require an original equipment manufacturer to divulge a trade secret… except as necessary to provide documentation, parts, and tools on fair and reasonable terms.”
Farming groups have increased their pressure on manufacturers to concede the right to repair, using the threat of legislation to reach an agreement.
Alongside Illinois and HB 3061, 20 other states are considering bills mandating the right to repair in their legislatures for a total of 32 bills.
Special needs education
The Illinois House Human Services Committee advanced two bills Tuesday one allowing special needs students to stay with a school program past their 22nd birthday and another allowing the use of certain federal nutrition benefits to purchase feminine hygiene products.
House Bill 40, introduced by Rep. Frances Hurley, D-Chicago, would allow special needs students to receive special education services through the end of the school year that they turn 22 years of age.
Under current state statute, special needs students can be removed from special education programs as soon as they hit their 22nd birthday. Hurley said the bill would be key to beginning to increase equity for special needs students that can already be left behind by a state system not properly equipped to support them.
Josh Long, principal of the Southside Occupational Academy, said the bill would “correct a historic inequity” for special needs students.
Opponents of the bill said it could cost up to $20 million more than the status quo for the state and school districts that will be required to provide an extra year of services. They also cited concerns over staffing levels at schools.
Peg Agnos, legislative director for the South Cooperative Organization for Public Education, told the committee that while the bill was an important first step toward improving equity for special needs students in the state, more discussions are needed in order to address the relative lack of special needs support programs for young adults.
The bill passed the committee with one vote against from Rep. Tom Demmer, R-Dixon, who cited concerns over funding.
Addressing period poverty
The second bill moved by the House Human Services Committee, House Bill 155, was introduced by Rep. Barbara Hernandez, D-Aurora.
It would allow residents to use federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Women Infants and Children benefits to purchase menstrual hygiene products. The bill would also make federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funding available for the purchase of feminine products as well.
“This legislation aims to address the issues of period poverty and expand access to feminine hygiene products for low income individuals,” Hernandez told the committee.
After a short discussion over whether the bill would overlap with existing provisions in Illinois public aid benefits, the bill passed unanimously.
Rep. Tom Demmer, R-Dixon, noted that the bill would require a waiver from the federal government for the program to take effect in regard to the usage SNAP and WIC funds.
Transportation committee work
The state House Transportation committee advanced two bills to the House floor Monday in its first meeting of the 102nd General Assembly.
The first bill would make spending by the Illinois Department of Transportation more transparent and accessible to the public.
House Bill 253 would establish a new asset management program for IDOT. The bill seeks to ensure that spending decisions for maintenance work and investment choices for new projects are based on objective metrics, and that those metrics be made available on the IDOT website.
According to bill sponsor, Rep. Kambium Buckner, D-Chicago, the bill would create a needs-based plan for the upkeep of IDOT assets relating to public transportation such as vehicles, facilities and equipment. It would also require IDOT to develop a performance-based model for selecting what projects the department will fund in order to maximize taxpayer investments.
Factors that may be considered include improving traffic, boosting an area’s economy, reducing environmental impact and increasing public safety.
Projects started and funded by the federal government would be exempt from the legislation.
The second bill considered and passed by the committee, House Bill 270, would remove the burden of funding bike lanes and sidewalks tied to IDOT projects from cities and towns and place them solely on the state.
Rep. Anna Moeller, D-Elgin, says under current law municipalities are required to match 20 percent of the state’s investment in order for construction projects on state transportation facilities to include bicycle and pedestrian ways. No other additional construction considerations, such as turning-lanes and traffic signals, require cities to put up their own funds to include in projects.
According to Moeller, this prevent smaller towns and villages, especially in rural areas, from having safe infrastructure for pedestrians and bikers near facilities under IDOT jurisdiction.
LaSalle Veterans’ Home
Two Republican lawmakers on Monday unveiled legislation to strengthen internal policies at state-run veterans homes in the case of a disease outbreak, such as the COVID-19 outbreak at the LaSalle Veterans’ Home that resulted in 36 resident deaths since the pandemic began.
The bill, sponsored by Republican Sen. Sue Rezin, defines an outbreak at a state veterans home as two or more staff or residents at the facility contracting an infectious disease within 48 hours of the first diagnosis.
Senate Bill 2251 would require the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs and Illinois Department of Public Health to conduct an on-site visit at a veterans home where an outbreak has occurred no later than the following business day after the home staff or administrator was notified.
Rezin, of Morris, said state officials with IDPH and IDVA were too slow to react at LaSalle because they did not conduct an on-site visit there until 12 days after the outbreak was reported on Nov. 1.
By Nov. 7, test results showed 22 residents and seven staff were positive. By Nov. 8, 59 residents and 64 staff tested positive for COVID-19. The facility reported seven resident deaths on Nov. 11.
SB 2251 would also mandate that IDVA post online the findings of its on-site inspection, as well as corrective actions needed, the dates of follow-up visits, and the initial and follow-up reports from the on-site visit.
Rep. David Welter, also of Morris, introduced a House resolution calling for the Illinois auditor general to conduct an investigation into the deaths at LaSalle, rather the acting inspector general of the Illinois Department of Human Services, who is currently tasked with the investigation.
Welter said Auditor General Frank Mautino should take over the investigation because the auditor general is appointed by the Legislative Audit Commission, a bipartisan committee of House and Senate members, not the governor.
Saliva-based COVID-19 testing
The University of Illinois System received Emergency Use Authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Monday for its saliva-based COVID-19 test, as the statewide seven-day rolling positivity rate reached 2.4 percent.
The FDA approval allows for the covidSHIELD test to expand beyond the U of I System. The saliva-based COVID-19 test has been administered more than 1.5 million times at universities in Urbana-Champaign, Chicago and Springfield since it launched in 2020, according to a news release.
Gov. JB Pritzker says he will be dedicating $20 million in federal CARES Act funding to provide one million of the saliva-based tests to Illinois’ 12 public universities and 48 community colleges.
According to Pritzker, widespread testing remains critical to combating the ongoing pandemic. An agreement between the Illinois Department of Public Health and the U of I System allows for federal funds to be put toward providing the tests.
“My administration has been proud to work hand in hand with U of I since the earliest days of this development, which has had an enormously positive effect on keeping COVID-19 at bay in the U of I System, and we’re wasting no time in deploying this technology throughout the state,” Pritzker said in a news release.
The testing process was developed by a team of researchers at UIUC.
The samples are tested at a covidSHIELD lab and individuals receive results within 24 hours. The test uses a genetic material contained in SARS-CoV-2 virus to determine if the virus is present or not in the salvia.
COVID-19 vaccine update
VACCINES UPDATE: The state announced new mass vaccination sites in Adams and Cook counties Wednesday and added National Guard support for sites in the state’s southernmost seven counties.
That brings the number of state-supported mass vaccination sites to 18, according to the governor’s office, while there are more than 880 sites throughout the state where eligible recipients can be vaccinated. Information on where to find vaccination sites and appointments is available at coronavirus.illinois.gov, although appointments are still limited due to limited supply.
Those currently eligible for the vaccine include people age 65 and older and those age 16-64 with preexisting conditions and comorbidities, as well as frontline essential workers and inmates.
On average over the previous seven days, the state had administered 84,202 vaccinations per day as of Wednesday. That included 82,449 doses administered over the previous 24 hours.
Providers in the state have received more than 3.8 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine, and more than 2.9 million, or 75 percent, have been administered, according to IDPH.
As of March 1, more than 1,070 National Guard members were deployed across the state to assist with COVID-19 response and vaccination efforts.
While the state announced the deployment of new mobile teams in the state’s southern seven counties, similar teams are currently operating in Cook, St. Clair, Sangamon, Jackson, Winnebago and Madison counties. Those teams are deployed to reach rural and underserved communities with priority sites determined by local health departments.
There is no charge to receive a COVID-19 vaccine and insurance is not required. The vaccine will be administered regardless of immigration status, according to a news release from the governor’s office.
The state expects to receive 100,000 doses daily from the federal government later this month, so the added vaccination sites are an effort to build the capacity needed to administer the added supply, Gov. JB Pritzker said in a news release.
COVID-19 case update
COVID-19 transmission rates and hospitalizations continued to remain near their pandemic lows Wednesday as the COVID-19 case positivity rate was 2.4 percent for the fifth consecutive day.
The 275 intensive care beds in use by COVID-19 patients Tuesday night represented a low since the state began reporting the numbers daily in April. The 1,260 hospital beds and 138 ventilators in use by COVID-19 patients were near pandemic lows as well.
Still, the virus claimed an additional 44 lives over the previous 24 hours, bringing the death count to 20,626 since the pandemic began. There have been more than 1.1 million cases and 18 million test results reported since the pandemic began.
As of Wednesday, a total of 70 variant cases have been identified in Illinois, including 69 of the variant first found in the United Kingdom and one first found in South Africa.
Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government and distributed to more than 400 newspapers statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.