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Ill. Lawmakers Weigh Waivers, Declare Process a Success

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After declaring open season on state-mandated school rules and paperwork, Illinois lawmakers rejected several waivers of such rules requested by districts, then went home for the year.

The legislature would not allow school districts to reinstate corporal punishment, excuse themselves from state accreditation, reduce the amount of teacher training time, or avoid installing firefighting sprinkler systems in school buildings.

But after creating a process this year for local districts to seek exemptions from state rules, lawmakers and the state school board did approve many shortcuts. The new system allows districts to request a waiver from any rule or law. And after sorting through the first batch of requests--about 100 from across the state--state officials proclaimed the new process a success.

"Legislators sent a strong message that they support local efforts to find better ways to improve schools," Joseph Spagnolo, the state superintendent of education, said after the legislature adjourned early this month.

Debate over some of the more contentious measures kept lawmakers busy until the final moments of this year's session. The waiver system allows the state board to grant waivers of state regulations at any time. Twice a year--and for the first time this fall--lawmakers deal with requests that involve relaxing state laws.

Among the approved waivers:

  • One district was allowed to let 9th and 10th graders who have failed required academic courses opt out of physical education in order to retake the required classes. Illinois mandates physical education for students all four years of high school.
  • Three districts were granted power to exclude students who have not received all required immunizations by the first day of classes. State law sets an Oct. 15 cutoff date.
  • Two districts were let off the hook on a requirement that the district treasurer live within district boundaries.
  • One district won permission to stretch the required semester of health and safety instruction over three years of middle school.

Accreditation Scrutinized

The state's accreditation system generated perhaps the most fervent requests for waivers. Five districts had asked that they not have to comply with the time-consuming process.

Lawmakers turned them down. But partly because of those waiver requests, state officials are reviewing the accreditation proc-ess and say they are on a fast track to making the process less burdensome.

"I am sure that legislators are hearing the same criticisms of the process that I am hearing throughout the state," Mr. Spagnolo said. "The accreditation process is viewed as being overly bureaucratic and laden with unnecessary paperwork, as well as a time-consuming diversion."

The Illinois education department started a review of its accreditation process in June. The schools chief said that task should be wrapped up next month and the results presented to the state board early next year.

Meanwhile, the education department will continue the job of considering waivers. State officials said at least 35 waiver requests have trickled in since the first batch was sent to lawmakers last month. Top department officials planned to consider several of them in the next week.

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