SPRINGFIELD — The Illinois House passed a bill that would reimburse public-school teachers for tuition and mandatory fees paid to a public college or university.
The measure is intended to promote the retention of teachers, but Republicans said it would skew toward the benefit of wealthy students whose parents paid for their education.
The bill, which passed this week on a 70-42 vote with no Republican support, would require the Illinois Student Assistance Commission to establish and administer a teacher-reimbursement grant program that provides eligible applicants an annual reimbursement of tuition and fees.
State Rep. Sue Scherer, D-Decatur, said the bill addresses a dire need for teachers and incentivizes them to remain in Illinois public schools for at least 10 years.
“I’m a retired teacher of 35 years, and my heart is broken when I go to high schools in my community,” Scherer said. “I see a gymnasium full of students without teachers because it seems to me many people have a reason to turn a blind eye to the teacher shortage.”
To be eligible for reimbursement, applicants must have attended a public Illinois university or college and completed a state-approved educator program. Scherer said while teachers are employed at a public school in the state, they will be reimbursed one-tenth of the amount they paid in tuition and fees for up to 10 years.
Applicants would need to provide documentation of the total amount of tuition and mandatory fees paid and would be reimbursed for up to eight semesters or 12 quarters of study. Tuition and fees incurred beyond that would be ineligible for reimbursement.
If all who were eligible took advantage, the grant program would cost about $1.4 billion over 18 years, according to a fiscal note attached to the bill at the request of a Republican lawmaker. In fiscal year 2023, it would cost about $88.3 million, and it would grow each year until peaking at about $140.2 million in years 9 and 10, declining thereafter. It would affect an estimated 65,160 Illinois teachers, including an estimated 53,460 current teachers.
The bill does not appropriate any money for the program, however, so lawmakers would have to include funding in future budgets for it to have any effect.
Illinois State Board of Education data shows that there are 1,703 unfilled teaching positions in 852 districts in Illinois.
State Rep. Kelly Cassidy, D-Chicago, said she comes from a family of teachers and has heard from her siblings how the shortage has impacted their ability to do their jobs. She noted that private-sector companies have used tuition reimbursement as an incentive to hire workers.
State Rep. Avery Bourne, R-Morrisonville, noted that the student assistance commission had concerns about the bill and filed a witness slip in opposition to it. She requested the fiscal note on the bill, which showed the billion-dollar price tag.
Bourne said due to the lack of income requirements in the bill, state taxpayers could be on the hook for tuition that a wealthy family member had already paid to the public university. She said it is an inequitable way of encouraging students to go into education.
The bill is supported by the state’s major teachers unions.
State Rep. Will Guzzardi, D-Chicago, noted that while there are many reasons for the teacher shortage, the pandemic has “added fuel to the fire,” and Scherer’s bill would be another opportunity to provide support.
The 2021 Illinois Educator Shortage Survey released by the Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools shows that the pandemic has led to a decrease in the number of employed educators and substitutes, with 80 percent of responding districts saying some of their teachers have had to use their prep time to substitute in another class.
Guzzardi said the shortage has led to substitute staffing problems throughout his district.
“I have principals who are ... teaching second grade because they just can’t get enough substitute teachers to cover,” he said.
State Rep. Jeff Keicher, R-Sycamore, said the bill creates confusing rules that will reward rich students whose parents are paying for their education.
Keicher said expanding the Golden Apple Scholar program — which helps high school seniors and college freshmen and sophomores who want to become teachers — and other incentives should have been considered before creating a new grant program.
The bill now heads to the Senate for further discussion.