From early childhood through their college years, all Illinois students will be able to receive what state legislators promise will be a more fair and inclusive education, after Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Monday signed a “bedrock pillar” of the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus’ agenda.
The governor said the bill “really does raise up our children everywhere in the state and advances equity in a way that we can all be proud.”
The omnibus legislation, passed during the General Assembly’s lame duck session in January, addresses early childhood, primary, secondary and higher education.
Dubbed the Education and Workforce Equity Act, it includes expanding access to the state’s early intervention program; adds some graduation requirements in computer literacy, a foreign language or laboratory science; expands the required Black history coursework to include the pre-enslavement of Black people and establishes a 22-person Inclusive American History Commission.
The bill also requires the Illinois Workforce Investment Board to conduct a feasibility study of all workforce development programs funded with dollars from the federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act.
Pritzker was joined by members of the Black Caucus and education advocates at Proviso East High School in west suburban Maywood for the bill signing.
“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, moments before signing the bill.
“Even when times are tough, we have to look over the horizon and invest in our long-term goals — especially when times are tough. We have to let our families and our children know that we’re fighting for them,” Pritzker said.
Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton said the legislation “will pay dividends for generations to come,” pointing to the reforms around Black history and an increase in funding for the Minority Teachers of Illinois Scholarship Program.
“With the signing of this legislation today we will make history, but we will also facilitate a diverse knowledge of history,” Stratton said, adding “this legislation that makes education in Illinois stronger and more inclusive.”
State House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch called the bill a “critical step” in ensuring all of the state’s students are successful.
“There is nothing more important than making sure our kids are best prepared to succeed in the world,” the Hillside Democrat said. “Without a good education, they will not succeed. This is a critical step here today. Unfortunately, this pandemic has only deepened educational disparities that were there long before the schools had to shut down for everyone’s safety. COVID-19 only shined a light on what many of us already knew, and now is the time to address those disparities.”
The bill was partly the brainchild of state Senate Majority Leader Kimberly Lightford, D-Maywood. She tearfully said the signing of the bill into law was her “moment of peace.”
“Every statistic, every metric, every measure that’s compiled, counted, analyzed, and audited, tells you as a Black mother, that your baby has a small chance of ever becoming a successful adult, simply because they were born Black, in a system built to ensure their failure,” Lightford said.
“I spoke about how parents will move heaven and earth to try to overcome these obstacles and the pain we feel when we look at our beautiful children without certainty for their future … granting even one opportunity to our most vulnerable children means more to me than any accolade or position I can receive.”
The education bill was one of four crafted by the Black Caucus and debated during the January session.
Another, focused on sweeping criminal justice reforms, was signed late last month and was the subject of a long back and forth between those in the caucus and supporters of the legislation and Republicans and members of law enforcement who called that new law “an insult to our first responders, law enforcement and the law-abiding citizens.”
Lightford said that while the criminal justice bill received more attention, the education bill is “just as important.”
State Rep. Carol Ammons called the legislation the “bedrock pillar” of the Illinois Black Caucus’ agenda.
The bill becoming law Monday is a public commitment to the state’s residents, “and ultimately to the nation, that we will not take second class education to us, to be taught to our children, nor to our progeny in the future,” the Urbana Democrat said.
“Today’s topic is education — tomorrow is equity, opportunity, and access,” Ammons said. “Education is the most basic and powerful manifestation of freedom we will ever know.”