The people of Illinois -- and particularly those living here in "Scott country" -- should be proud of recent action by our elected officials to correct glaring deficiencies in state law that have for years penalized military parents seeking to enroll their children in public schools when they transfer into Illinois for assignments at Scott Air Force Base and other military installations.
Military families face unique challenges during the course of their service members' careers. Lengthy deployments, frequent relocations and transfers all strain military families in ways most civilian households never face. For service members with children, these factors are especially problematic.
On average, children of military families will enroll in six to nine different school systems between kindergarten and 12th grade and will transfer more than twice during their high school years -- three times as frequently as non-military families.
But once they arrive at their new post, seemingly reasonable state and local regulations put in place to support quality education standards too often have the unintended consequence of denying military children access to their appropriate grade levels, course and program placement and extracurricular activities. These barriers unfairly penalize military families for following orders to relocate to new communities and can result in military children being treated as outsiders, even having their college plans derailed. These very real concerns often prompt military parents to search for more receptive school districts as they look for off-base housing.
About 10 years ago, the Department of Defense and the Council of State Governments drafted a voluntary Interstate Compact on Educational Opportunity for Military Children to address the educational transition challenges facing military families. In 2010, Illinois enacted legislation intended to implement many of the compact's model provisions. But sadly, the Illinois bill failed to address several key needs and by last year, it was common knowledge among military families that Illinois had the weakest set of protections for military children among the 46 states then participating in the interstate compact.
While this situation was not widely appreciated by the public, it was well-known among Air Force and other active duty military personnel, who wondered why Illinois was not living up to the promises it had made when it seemingly embraced the compact.
Fortunately, the Southwestern Illinois Military Assets Retention and Expansion Task Force, co-sponsored by St. Clair County, Madison County and the Leadership Council Southwestern Illinois, heard these concerns and made sure they were known to our state legislators and Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon, who chairs the state's Interagency Military Base Support and Economic Development Committee. She also took an active interest in pursuing a remedy in Springfield. Rep. Eddie Lee Jackson, whose district includes Scott, took the lead by introducing a new bill to correct Illinois' education compact deficiencies.
House Bill 3939 passed both houses of the Illinois General Assembly in May with overwhelming support, and on June 28, Gov. Pat Quinn signed the bill into law in a ceremony at Mascoutah High School, whose students include many children of Air Force personnel stationed at Scott. The new law amends the Educational Opportunity for Military Children Act by including important provisions concerning grade level transition, course and program placement, and eligibility for interscholastic sports and other extracurricular activities.
Following the bill signing, Col. Kyle J. Kremer, commander of the 375th Air Mobility Wing, thanked Quinn, Simon, Jackson and other sponsors for their efforts to facilitate a smooth transition for children of military families so they can continue at grade level and pursue higher education opportunities. "It's a great benefit to our families," said Kremer.
Congratulations to all for a job well done -- in the best Illinois tradition.
Gerry Schuetzenhofer is chairman of the Military Affairs Committee of the Leadership Council Southwestern Illinois, an economic development corporation that unites business, industry, government, education and labor to promote economic growth in the region.