Senator Kyle McCarter: Senate Week In Review

April 17, 2014

Senator Kyle McCarter: Senate Week In Review

The Senate was in session Monday through Thursday of the week. Education was an important issue as we witnessed a battle over Common Core and the advancement of a plan that purports to reform the way public education is funded. Also this week was the announcement by the Illinois Department of Transportation (I-DOT) that it will spend about $8.6 billion on roads, bridges and transit projects in the state over the next six years.

Common Core is a controversial new set of standards by which educators are to assess the learning abilities of our children. It’s also very controversial as evidenced by the debate we had on the Senate floor this past week. It is also widely unpopular in the 54th Senate District. That and my own concerns about pushing new burdens on our local schools with no real guarantee of the level of funding prompted me to vote against Senate Bill 3412, which allows a new assessment test under the Common Core curriculum. In debate, my colleague Senator Chapin Rose of Mahomet was a passionate witness to the impact Common Core was having on his local schools. Here are some of his comments:

“I survey all 55 of my school superintendents…80% were against…because the schools aren’t ready to do the testing,” Sen. Rose said. “Of the remaining 20%; ‘We think it’s a good idea but we’re not ready.’”

Sen. Rose went on to explain that he used his Facebook Internet page to ask parents of grade school children what they thought about Common Core. Here’s what he told the Senate about the messages he received:

“I have a PHD in Pharmacology and I can’t help my third grader with their math.”

“I T-A (Teacher Assistant) Calculus at the University of Illinois and have a degree in Engineering but I can’t help my kid with math.”

Sen. Rose said grade school kids are being left in tears because of their frustration and inability to do math problems under the new Common Core standards. It has been said that Common Core de-emphasizes correct answers by awarding kids points for reasoning, even when they don’t quite get the correct answer.

The Common Core standards were adopted by the state back in 2010, not by a vote of the Senate mind you, but by the education bureaucracy at the State Board of Education and then examined and approved by the Joint Commission on Administrative Rules (J-CAR), which does have legislators as members but its certainly not the same as getting approval by the Senate and the House chambers. Legislators pass bills and they get signed into law by the Governor but it is J-CAR which decides how that legislation is implemented.

Meanwhile, I have introduced a Senate Resolution to delay the implementation of the Common Core State Standards until the State Board of Education conducts a study detailing the costs associated with them. Unfortunately, my resolution has yet to be given a hearing in the Senate’s Education Committee. It seems reasonable to me that state government would not move forward and burden our local schools when we don’t yet know details about the level of funding.

That brings me to the next part of this story and one which we began to hear about this past week. Senate Bill 16 is a measure that purports to reform the way Illinois schools are funded or more precisely reforms the formula used to fund our schools. It has advanced to the point where it is poised for Senate debate and a vote and it’s a 400-plus page piece of legislation that I fear has been little read and understood.

’m concerned for a number of policy reasons too:

· It is a major rewrite of the way school dollars are distributed yet the proposal contains no official estimates from the State Board of Education about the impact on schools in the 54th Senate District nor anywhere else.

· I’m concerned the way the legislation is written because it raises the possibility downstate taxpayer dollars could be used to subsidize Chicago teacher pension payments.

· Problems with how Poverty Grants were awarded to schools, which the Senate Republican Staff uncovered a year ago, apparently do not get addressed and the Poverty Grant disparity between Chicago and downstate schools could actually get worse.

· There is no mandate relief for local schools.

IDOT took the wraps off a six-year, $8.6 billion transportation construction program April 9. There are a number of area road and bridge projects on the list worth an estimated $560 million for the 54th Senate District during the same six year period through 2020.

For the upcoming 2015 Fiscal Year which starts July 1, 2014, there are eight projects on the list. The largest is $25 million for road and bridge repairs along Interstate 70 from 2.5 miles east of the Interstate 55/270 interchange to just west of Prairie Road in Madison County.

The money allocated that’s been allocated for these projects is obviously good news and it will accomplish a great deal for the region but I also think it points to a larger issue about state government and how it manages the taxpayers’ dollars, something that I have consistently said needs to change.

There are certainly more needs than those outlined in this latest Road Plan. There’s been talk about a separate capital plan for roads, bridges, schools and other public construction projects but I’m not in favor of doing that unless state government changes the management of our tax dollars. Clearly, the Road Plan is evidence that we are continuing to spend money on roads and bridges from pre-budgeted revenue sources including the federal government. However, a commitment by state government to first live within its means is essential if we are going to be able to meet additional needs.

Unfortunately, we don’t have that commitment yet. If you can’t pay your light bill, you normally don’t build a two-car garage. State government must fund capital projects every year with what’s left from the responsible management of tax dollars. Responsible management would turn around the state and get government back on track to paying its bills on time. We could set aside extra tax dollars for new capital projects and for priorities such as education, human services and public safety which frankly have suffered greatly over the past ten years

How about a little common sense to go along with acting responsibly? Illinois must live within its means and not overspend. Then and only then we set aside the extra revenue that is not being spent with 25% going to roads and bridges, 25% for education, 25% used to pay off old debt and 25% targeted for so-called ‘rainy day’ fund for unforeseen challenges. State government could accomplish far more than it does today with our tax dollars and at the same time give legislators an incentive to ensure government continues to live within its means so the revenue, the money Illinois collects, goes back to the taxpayers whether its in the form of money for schools, construction projects or improved state services.