Crain's Chicago: Rauner threatens veto of school-testing bill

By Greg Hinz

April 22, 2015

A flap over mandatory school testing has elicited what appears to be Gov. Bruce Rauner's first veto threat.

Administration sources confirm that the governor, a big school-reform advocate, is prepared to veto a bill awaiting a final House vote that effectively would let parents and school districts off the hook if kids fail to take state assessment tests—including the new Common Core exam required by federal law.

Rauner's office is warning lawmakers that the bill, if enacted, could cost the state $1 billion a year in federal funds.

The proposed measure by Rep. Will Guzzardi, D-Chicago, would prevent state or local authorities from taking any "negative action" against a teacher, parent, school or student for excusing a student from taking a required test, according to a synopsis on the General Assembly's website. Districts also would be directed to inform parents annually of a right not to be tested and to hand out opt-out forms, and prevent any school district or its agent "from encouraging or discouraging students or their parents or guardians" to opt out of testing.

Guzzardi, in an interview, said children nationwide are balking at tests "and will continue to do so" whether officials like it or not. Rather than creating "chaos in the classroom "—and "bullying" students by forcing them to sit in an empty classroom for a day if they refuse the test—officials should recognize reality and let parents have the final say, Guzzardi said.

But Rauner has a different take. His secretary of education, Beth Purvis, late today sent lawmakers a memo saying that the state could lose $1 billion a year in federal aid and control over federal anti-poverty funding if more than 5 percent of students refuse the tests.

"While this administration understands concerns that parents, educators and lawmakers have about how students are evaluated, (Guzzardi's bill) is the wrong vehicle through which to address these issues and has the potential to significantly disrupt the education of Illinois children."

The administration is open to other approaches that may be proposed by a task force scheduled to report next month, Purvis added. But approving this bill "would, in fact, be counterproductive to improving education and local control."

Guzzardi said federal law is "unclear" on financial penalties and said he hopes to call the bill for final action tomorrow. The bill so far has drawn an eclectic coalition of co-sponsors from both sides of the aisle, including Chicago progressives such as Greg Harris, conservative Republicans like Ron Sandack and Barbara Wheeler, and African-Americans such as Democrat Mary Flowers.

The fight over the Guzzardi bill echoes a recent battle in Chicago in which Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett initially refused to implement Common Core testing in all schools. She backed off after the Illinois State Board of Education threatened to cut off not only federal funds to CPS but general state aid, too.

Testing has drawn fire from teachers unions, a particular foe of Rauner's policies.