SPRINGFIELD — A new school year means students, teachers and school administrators are facing dozens of new laws and requirements.
According to a review of state records, schools in Illinois must comply with at least 24 new statutes this year, ranging from training students how to save lives with an automatic external defibrillator to practicing how to evacuate schools in emergencies.
The additional requirements are down slightly from the average of 27 new rules imposed on districts each year since 2007, based on reports collected by the Illinois State Board of Education.
The laws, known as mandates, have been a thorny issue for school districts for years. Despite the good intentions behind many of the additional requirements imposed by the General Assembly, the cost of complying often can come at the expense of other programs or even local property tax increases.
"There's never been a day added to the school calendar. There's never been a minute added to the day," said Ben Schwarm, deputy executive director of the Illinois Association of School Boards.
State Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, put a spotlight on the problem last spring when he introduced legislation that would allow school districts to opt out of having to comply with some mandates, including a short course of instruction on Norse explorer Leif Erickson and other similar observances.
Manar's plan was meant as an olive branch to school districts wary of his plan to overhaul how Illinois finances public education. The idea was later dropped after opponents suggested it would be tough for lawmakers to vote to remove some of the requirements from the books, including mandates requiring the teaching of African-American history and women's rights.
Mike Williams, superintendent of the Maroa-Forsyth school district in central Illinois, said the lengthy list of mandates can be challenging to adhere to for both administrators and teachers.
But, he said, "Obviously, there are some things that are worthwhile. We'd just appreciate the ability to review some of them and decide whether they fit with our mission."
Mandates put on the books in recent years include requiring school districts to accept miniature horses as service animals for certain disabled children. Other new laws focus on bullying, Internet safety and ensuring movable soccer goals are installed safely.
A 2009 law requires that U.S. flags flown at public buildings be manufactured in the United States.
Regardless of the merits of various mandates, the school board association has taken a blanket approach to opposing all mandates.
"The intent of many of these is fine. But if you think this is such a priority, you should provide funding for it," Schwarm said. "At some point, something has to give."
Gary Kelly, superintendent at the Du Quoin school district, said the problem with mandates is compounded by the state's decision to cut state aid to schools.
"It's already frustrating. That just makes it exponentially worse," Kelley said Tuesday. "Something has got to be done."
According to reports compiled since 2007 by the state school board, the high point for new mandates came in 2011 when 46 were ordered by lawmakers. The next highest year was in 2007 with 42 mandates.
Of the estimated 224 new requirements handed down in the past seven years, state officials said at least 64 of them would cost school districts money. But officials provided no estimate of the actual cost of the additional work.