CHICAGO (CBS) — Gov. JB Pritzker on Monday signed legislation geared toward addressing racial disparities in education and leveling the playing field for Black and Brown students and those from underserved school districts.

“As I see it our work isn’t done until equity and fairness is a guiding principle at all of our schools; until every child has the educational tools available to them that will allow them to attain the future that they dream of,” Pritzker said as he signed legislation that was a key part of the Legislative Black Caucus’ plan to eliminate systemic racism.

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The bill makes sweeping changes to the state’s education system, from early childhood through higher education.

Illinois State Rep. Carol Ammons (D-Urbana), who sponsored the measure in the House, said the legislation is intended to eliminate the achievement gap caused by built-in inequities in the education system that have hampered Black and Brown students.

“We have today made a stance together, and we are publicly committing to the people of Illinois – and, ultimately, the nation – that we will not take second-class education … to be taught to our children, nor to our progeny in the future,” she said.

The legislation would expand access to the state’s early intervention program by allowing children who turn 3 years old between May and August to continue receiving services until the beginning of the next school year.

It also would update high school graduation requirements, to mandate two years of laboratory science, two years of a foreign language or sign language starting in the 2024-2025 school year. High school students also would be required to take at least one computer literacy course, and high schools would be required to offer at least one elective computer science class.

The bill also creates a new standardized assessment for children entering kindergarten by measuring literacy, language, mathematics, and social and emotional development skills. That test would not prevent kids from attending kindergarten if they don’t meet certain benchmarks, but instead would give schools the opportunity to determine in what areas children need to improve.

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The legislation also creates the Whole Child Task Force, charged with creating equitable, safe, inclusive, and supportive environments for all children – but especially survivors of trauma.

It also creates a 22-person Inclusive American History Commission to reform the state’s history curriculum by reducing the focus on Eurocentric perspectives, and expanding Black history courses and teachings on other minority groups.

Sen. Kimberly Lightford (D-Maywood), who sponsored the legislation in the Illinois Senate, said it creates “a new path of equity in education that tells every child – every child in this state – that we are invested in their God-given potential.”

“It is time that Black girls be empowered instead of being demeaned and punished by those who feel threatened by their lights. It is time that Black boys can be carefree and not seen as threatening because of the color of their skin. And it is time for children to have the chance to be children and to be taught by people of color,” she said.

Proudly describing herself as an “angry black woman” who has demanded better from the state’s education system in her 22 years as a state lawmaker, Lightford said “being here today acknowledges that even through all the noise, I was meant to get here.”

“This is my moment of peace. My anger is gone, because I know that this legislation is transformative and filled with hope for our children,” she said. “This education pillar explores our state’s education system, the workforce development system through an equity lens, with the goal of ending centuries of systemic racism.”

According to the governor’s office, other changes include:

  • Increased access to accelerated placement programs for elementary and high school students meeting or exceeding state standards in English language arts, math, or science.
  • Expands the required Black history coursework to include pre-enslavement of Black people, why Black people came to be enslaved, and the American Civil Rights renaissance.
  • Requires the Illinois P-20 Council to make recommendations for the short-term and long-term learning recovery actions for public school students in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Requires the Professional Review Panel to study various issues to strengthen the equity components in the state’s evidence-based school funding formula.
  • Establishes the Developmental Education Reform Act, which requires community colleges to use certain measures to determine the placement of students in introductory college-level courses.
  • Increases the percentage of grant funds prioritized for Black males and incorporates consideration of financial need in awarding grants for higher education.
  • Establishes priority in grant funding for students wanting to become bilingual teachers.
  • Expands the Illinois Teaching Excellence Program to cover programs working with diverse candidates.
  • Reduces the AIM High Program matching funds requirement for public universities based on the percentage of low-income students enrolled at the public institution.
  • Requires that ISBE compile a review that identifies the courses that each public university requires or recommends that high school students take in order to be admitted as an undergraduate.
  • Requires the Illinois Workforce Investment Board conduct a feasibility study of all workforce development programs funded by the federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act.
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“This legislation accomplishes so much to expand access – from early childhood services to AP courses – to achieve equity by addressing learning loss due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and to broaden opportunities by evaluating and streamlining our workforce programs so that more students might choose a career in education,” Pritzker said. “Even when times our tough, we have to look over the horizon and invest in our long-term goals; especially when time sour tough. We have to let our families and our children know that we’re fighting for them.”

CBS 2 Chicago Staff