Four local leaders recently came together to highlight their work surrounding education policies. On Jan. 26, over Zoom, Senate President Don Harmon (D-Oak Park), Senate Majority Leader Kimberly Lightford (D-Maywood), state Rep. La Shawn Ford (D-Chicago) and state Rep. Camille Lilly participated in a forum hosted by Oak Park District 97’s Committee for Legislative Action, Intervention and Monitoring (CLAIM). For the last nine years, CLAIM members have led a panel, inviting area lawmakers to discuss issues that may impact school districts, not only its own but many others statewide.

Sen. Kimberly Lightford

During the hourlong event, Lightford opened up about House Bill 2170, otherwise known as The Education and Workforce Equity Act, which was backed by the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus and signed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker last March. Lightford, who sponsored the legislation, broke down the act, which sought to revamp a set of education policies affecting students of color across various grade levels. Among the many efforts, the act outlined new high school graduation requirements, expanded computer literacy programs for elementary students and addressed students’ social-emotional needs. More early intervention programs, changes to education programs to rid barriers for teachers of color and a move to bring in an inclusive history course are also part of the equity act. 

“We wanted to make sure there was an opportunity to adjust and promote equity and fairness and opportunity for all marginalized communities that face different impediments to their education,” Lightford told Jay Rowell, one of the panel’s moderators and CLAIM member.

Don Harmon

The act also sought to establish the Whole Child Task Force to offer more resources for students suffering from trauma. Lightford said the task force was created to ensure that children in Illinois schools have access to teachers or social workers trained in restorative practices and able to support them. Lightford said the task force is expected to release a report in the coming month and hopes the report will shed some insight on how Oak Park school districts can better support their students of color. 

“Oak Park schools have always been on top of progressive legislation, and I think that is really crucial because there’s still been questions about the way African American students are not as supported in the Oak Park school district,” she said. “I’m hoping that through the Whole Child report that the definitions and suggestions that come forth can help Oak Park school districts identify the challenges that apparently are there.”

Another topic up for discussion was whether lawmakers would add the COVID vaccine to the list of required vaccines for schools and childcare centers.  

Camille Lilly

“I want to tell folks [that] at this point there is no serious conversation about mandating a vaccine for school attendance,” Harmon told viewers. “While the vaccine does appear to be safe and effective for children, the vaccines authorized for school-aged children are still under emergency use authorization and aren’t generally approved.”

Lilly also told viewers that she and Harmon have sat in on roundtable discussions with area families and talked about concerns surrounding COVID-19 vaccines. Lilly shared parents are also worried about their children’s social-emotional needs as the pandemic continues.

“I’m very eager to have more of those conversations,” she said, adding she would also like to launch a platform for young people to talk about their experiences in this “new world.”

“It’s really important that we all understand that the pandemic has caused us to change from a public perspective – how we do what we do now in our society – and our young people are most affected by it,” Lilly said, noting the only way forward is to work together.

State Rep. LaShawn Ford

            As the conversation continued, Lightford, Lilly, Ford and Harmon opened up about their goals and other initiatives to address the needs in their communities. For starters, Lightford told viewers she looked forward to learning more about the workforce, dispelling myths around unemployment and creating more opportunities for workers in need of jobs and educational resources.

            Ford, who represents the West Side of Chicago, told viewers he planned to continue his advocacy around issues on gun violence in his communities, while Lilly sought to promote healthcare reforms, specifically for nursing homes and medical workers such as caregivers. Harmon, on the other hand, said he is concentrating on the state’s finances and passing a balanced budget. 

            “Everything else that we want to do in the state is dependent on that foundation of a stable, predictable state budget,” Harmon said, “so I’m going to remain focused on that and then work with the members of our caucus to try to advance their own individual priorities.”

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