Listen to this article

The state has backed off slightly as an executive order gets challenged in court.

When it comes to his sometimes-controversial policy proposals to fight the coronavirus, Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s bold decisions have made it clear that it’s his way or the highway.

Some see his action as evidence of strong executive leadership necessary to address a pandemic that has claimed the lives of more than 700,000 Americans. Given continuing outbreaks,including the Delta variant, it’s not clear his actions have had the desired effect. But that’s not for want of Pritzker executive orders.

But there’s another school of thought, probably a minority view. From that perspective, Pritzker is perceived as throwing his weight around in an unlawful way. Some local court opinions aside, state courts have pretty much granted Pritzker carte blanche to do what he thinks best under his emergency statutory authority.

But it appears Pritzker recently stubbed his toe, claiming power he does not have. That’s not official because the Illinois State Board of Education quietly modified a gubernatorial edict — to what effect remains unclear — and then minimized its import.

Although expressing support for local control of the issue, Pritzker issued mask mandates for students returning to K-12 schools, both public and private. Private schools that crossed him would immediately lose “recognition status” while public schools would be placed on probation first.

In directing that his orders be followed or else, the governor embraced a nuclear option. He took schoolchildren as hostages and vowed they would pay if members of their local school boards did not do it his way. His threatened withdrawal of recognition would deny financial support to districts, suspend their sports programs and, most outrageously, deny students academic credit for courses they completed that are necessary for graduation.

That last threat, if fully implementedfor a full school year, is so punitive that it’s hard to accept at face value. It could require students to repeat a whole school year because of actions beyond their control.

Pritzker’s approach did not sit well with his critics. Parkview Christian Academy in Yorkville went to court to challenge the governor’s authority to withdraw “recognition” in this fashion.

After a Kendall County judge issued a temporary restraining order blocking Pritzker’s punitive approach, the state board of education quietly modified Pritzker’s plan. Henceforth, it said, private school districts, like public school districts, will first be put on probation. Then, if they do not submit a “corrective plan” that bows to Pritzker’s rules, they will lose state recognition.

Rather than address the question of the governor’s legal authority to withdraw recognition as he originally said he would, the agency characterized the move as an effort of accommodation.

“Moving nonpublic schools to probation instead of nonrecognition gives schools more time to work with ISBE on coming into compliance,” a spokeswoman said.

The modification doesn’t change the circumstances of the Parkview Christian lawsuit because Pritzker ultimately is seeking to withdraw its recognition. So, one way or another, sooner or later, a definitive answer about the extent of Pritzker’s vast emergency powers should be forthcoming.

The manner in which the state school board acted suggests it’s not absolutely confident of Pritzker’s legal standing.

He may claim to be on the side of the angels, taking action to protect public health. But his actions raise two questions — one medical and one legal.

Do masks have the multiple benefits that Pritzker claims? After all, some national experts consider the mandate for K-12 students to be “child abuse.”

And even if it is good public policy, does he have the legal authority to protect the young people whose best interests he claims to champion with heavy-handed methods that could cause serious harm?

Trending Videos