Governor Bruce Rauner signed House Bill 4025 on August 21, requiring that all Illinois public high school students must take a civics semester in order to graduate. Under the bill, now Public Act 99-0434, the course has to be provided in a separate class, but as part of the state’s two-year social studies requirement.
The requirement takes effect January 1, 2016, with implementation in the 2015-2016 school year, a timeline school supporters say could create problems for some students and schools.
Critics, including the Illinois Statewide School Management Alliance, note that thousands of students will be scrambling to get in a civics course before graduating in the current school year. The Alliance opposed the legislation in the spring based largely on school district concerns about difficulties in providing the courses and rearranging student schedules, as well as other potential problems.
“We will be seeking to amend this law to phase in implementation so graduation requirements aren’t changed in the middle of a high school student’s graduation path,” said Alliance spokesman Ben Schwarm, deputy executive director of the Illinois Association of School Boards. “There is language being drafted to address this concern by excluding the class of 2016 from this requirement,” Schwarm said.
The newly required civics semester differs from the current mandate that says an Illinois Constitution Test must be passed by Illinois public school students graduating from eighth and 12th grades. The new law does not, for example, include testing requirements. Rather than teaching answers to a standardized test, the course would entail “hands-on” civics education that incorporates debate, simulation of the democratic process, discussion of controversial issues, and news literacy.
School districts are allowed under the new law to use private funding that is available for the purposes of offering the civics education. Nonprofit groups such as the Robert R. McCormick Foundation and The Chicago Community Trust have pledged to contribute at least $1 million annually for three years for teacher training in civics across the state.
Schwarm notes, however, that private money for providing the courses runs out in three years, and schools may well be stuck with the bill after the money dries up. “That was another major concern of the Alliance, and that still needs to be rectified,” he said.
The bill was sponsored by Rep. Deborah Conroy (D-Downers Grove).