SPRINGFIELD — No child in an Illinois public school would be barred from receiving a school lunch, even if the student's parents have not paid up their lunch bills, under a bill approved by an Illinois Senate committee Tuesday.
The legislation — which Senate sponsor Steve Stadelman, D-Rockford, calls the Hunger-Free Students Bill of Rights — passed the Senate Education Committee, 9-1.
"It says that children should not go hungry or be humiliated because they could not afford lunch that day or don't have the money to pay for that lunch," Stadelman said.
"There have been reports around the country of school districts publicly identifying students and stigmatizing students who owe money by putting them at different tables or hand stamps at the same time."
The bill also would prohibit schools from providing alternative meals to children with school-lunch debts.
"It says that students should receive a federally reimbursed meal and that adults should figure out later on how to deal with the debt," he said. "It's important that students have the nutrition they need to complete their school day and not be stigmatized."
Once a student has racked up five unpaid lunches, a school district would be free to contact his or her parents to encourage them to enroll in the free or reduced lunch program, Stadelman said, or a district could ask the state comptroller to collect the fees.
The committee also approved legislation that would set the minimum salary for an Illinois teacher with a bachelor's degree at $40,000.
The current law, which hasn't been updated since 1980, sets the minimum at $9,000.
"We simply applied an inflationary index to that number and seek to update it in current statute," said Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, the sponsor of the bill. "We've had a lot of discussions about how do we address what is undoubtedly a shortage of educators today in the state, more pronounced in some parts of the state than others."
Manar called the situation in his Senate district "a full-blown crisis" and said some veteran teachers make poverty-level wages.
Sean Denny, a lobbyist with the Illinois Education Association, said low teacher pay is a national problem.
"We are not paying our teachers the same amount that we're paying other professionals," he said, "and we're asking them to do more and more each year with less and less. It's a very convenient argument in this state to use competition as the reason why we do this, particularly when it comes to school choice. We talk about competition as if it's some magic elixir. If we have competition, everyone's going to rise to the challenge. But we don't apply that competition when it comes to what we pay our teachers."