There otter be a law

I reprint this with permission from State School News Service’s Jim Broadway, who, yes! wishes he had thought of that title…

Killing river otters more supported than vouchers

By Jim Broadway, Publisher, State School News Service

The Great Voucher Proposal of 2011 appears stalled in the Senate. Meanwhile, a bill to allow the hunting and trapping of river otters – the cutest critters – is flying through the legislature with hardly any opposition at all.

Why would that be? Let’s take a look.

We’ll consider the otter issue. First, take a look at this two-minute video demonstrating great teaching techniques employed by river otter mothers. Sure, it’s home-schooling, but there’s something about her methods that might apply in public schools.

[Click “Show More” link for great facts. Thanks, columbuszoo.org.]

Actually, this exercise in civic engagement will work better if you let the kids in your class, or your own kids, see the clip. That will heighten the emotion around the bill we are about to consider. (Civic engagement seems to require emotion.)

The bill is HB 1724. It could reach a final vote in the Senate as early as Friday. It has sped through the policy process at a rapid clip and soon could be on the governor’s desk. If the kids are going to head it off, that may have to be where they do it.

What does the bill do? Take a look at the text. It says (Lines 13-14): “It is unlawful for any person to take bobcat or river otter in this State at any time.” That is the law. But the words “or river otter” are stricken through. That is the basic effect of this legislation.

If the bill is enacted (passed by the Senate, signed by Gov. Pat Quinn), the bobcat will be the only animal fully protected under the Illinois Wildlife Code. Otters could be “taken” or “harvested” (“sportsmen” use metaphors for “kill”) like other fur bearing animals.

The rest of the bill describes the regulation. Otter “harvests” could be “registered” for $5 per pelt. Could this be how the policymakers plan to solve the state’s problem of backlogged debt? What if it doesn’t? Are the bobcats next?

How do your kids feel about all this? I think it’s too late to write to legislators, except perhaps to scold them for supporting this bill. If they want to have their voice heard, kids should write the governor a note urging that he “Veto HB 1724.” Mail it to:

Gov. Pat Quinn, 207 State House, Springfield, IL 62706.

Now, does this seem frivolous? I think not. You learned that otters are in peril despite their mothers’ best teaching techniques. You learned how to read a bill (underlined language adds to current law, and stricken-through words are removed).

And the kids learned a simple but effective act of civic engagement.

Now let’s examine the voucher issue. It is more complex than our concern about river otters – and it has attracted powerful forces, for and against it – but it has the potential to influence the shape of public education in Illinois for years.

The vehicle is SB 1932. Its goal is to “rescue” up to 30,000 grade school students – almost all of them of poor, minority-race families – from “failing” Chicago Schools.

It is sponsored by Sen. Matt Murphy (R-Palatine) and is co-sponsored by three other white Republican men from the suburbs, plus Sen. James Meeks (D-Chicago), an African-American.

The bill would let parents of children attending the “lowest-performing” or most over-crowded schools in Chicago apply for vouchers worth $3,800 each, which would be used to pay tuition and fees for the students to attend a private school.

Advocates call it “reform” and claim it is the only way to save children “trapped” in failing schools. Opponents say it harms public schools and is just a step down the road toward privatizing them. It is a largely partisan issue. Most Republicans support voucher programs; most Democrats vote against them.

This was to be “the year” four vouchers in Illinois. A bill sponsored by Meeks passed the Senate last year with 22 GOP votes and 11 from Democrats. It came within a whisker of passing the House, but Meeks’ bill died just short of the finish line.

Why has Murphy’s bill stalled this year? It has missed two deadlines for a vote to pass the Senate. It now seems dead. There may be many causes for SB 1932 to crash, but I think the biggest obstacle was placed in its path by Sen. Kimberly Lightford (D-Chicago).

While voting for it in committee, Lightford objected to the fact that the bill would give private schools vouchers for $3,800 per student and, if that was not enough, the schools could invoice the parents for the rest. That would not do, Lightford said.

Murphy drafted an amendment to address that, but he never called the bill for a vote. My guess is that adopting the amendment prohibiting balance-billing would cut both ways. It locks in Lightford, but it sours private school interests on the bill.

The $3,800 figure is approximately what the Chicago Public School District receives, per student, from the state. But CPS also is supported heavily by property taxes and of federal funds. Educating a child costs far more than $3,800. If the private schools could not bill parents for the difference, they might lose interest in SB 1932. Perhaps they already have.

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About the PURE Thoughts blogger
Julie Woestehoff is PURE's executive director. Julie's work has earned her a Ford Foundation award and recognition as one of the 100 Most Powerful Women in Chicago.