Special education, hair discrimination bills advance from Senate committee

SPRINGFIELD - The Senate Education Committee advanced several bills Tuesday, including measures addressing special education, hairstyle discrimination and teaching Asian American history in public schools.

Those were among more than a dozen bills to pass the committee, the majority of which passed unanimously without debate or discussion.

House Bill 41, sponsored by Springfield Democrat Sen. Doris Turner, would add a new responsibility for the state when placing children in special education facilities. Under the proposal, before a child could be placed in an out-of-state residential facility, the entity behind that decision - whether it is a school district, Illinois agency or court - must refer the child's guardians to a comparable in-state facility to consider.

The provision would also require the entity behind an out-of-state placement of a special education student to review that placement annually, and each year refer an in-state facility to the child's guardians.

House Bill 40, sponsored by Sen. Bill Cunningham, a Chicago Democrat, would change how students using special education services age out of the program. Under current Illinois law, special needs students lose their eligibility and are removed from school the day before they turn 22.

"It denies special ed students of an experience that we want all of our students to have, and that is to graduate with their peers," Cunningham said in his testimony before the committee. "We could also relate to the fact that for many of these students, routine is a such an important part of their lives, and to disturb that with sudden departure from the school program is very emotionally upsetting to the student, and to the family."

Cunningham's bill allows students in special education to be eligible for services throughout the entire school year in which they turn 22, allowing them to graduate at the same time as their peer group.

Both bills were advanced to the Senate floor unanimously, having already passed in the Illinois House.

Two bills that were subject to lengthy testimony and debate during the Senate Education Committee's previous hearing on May 4 also advanced to the Senate floor Tuesday.

An amendment to Senate Bill 817, sponsored by Chicago Democratic Sen. Mike Simmons, would prohibit all Illinois schools from making dress code requirements that prohibit hairstyles historically associated with race, ethnicity or hair texture. The legislation specifically cites braids, locks and twists as hairstyles protected by the statute.

"This is a really straightforward proposition," Simmons said during his May 4 testimony before the committee. "As somebody who has been targeted and discriminated myself by schools, and has been resilient and I don't want the next generation to have to go through this."

The committee ultimately voted to table Simmons' bill during its previous hearing due to concerns over the enforcement mechanisms. Many Democrats expressed opposition to a provision that would have withheld the allocation of dollars from the state's evidence-based funding model for education from school districts that were non-compliant with the bill.

While Simmons testified during that hearing that he wanted the legislation to have "teeth" behind its enforcement, the version he introduced Tuesday removed that provision from the bill.

It passed the committee in a 9-4 vote along partisan lines to advance to the Senate floor. It needs passage from both chambers before it can head to the governor for consideration.

An amendment to House Bill 376, also known as the "TEAACH Act," sponsored by Sen. Ram Villivalam, a Chicago Democrat, would include Asian American history in the curriculum of all public elementary and high schools.

A previous amendment to the bill was passed by the committee in a 13-1 vote on May 4.

"This amendment simply addresses a concern from within the Asian American community, to ensure that we keep the focus on the unit of Asian American history that will be required as part of this legislation," Villivalam said in committee Tuesday.

The amendment advanced to the Senate floor with unanimous committee support.

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