Illinois parents of truant students can be fined up to $500 and jailed up to 30 days, but a bill in the state legislature would increase the maximum penalties to a $1,000 fine and six months in jail for some parents — those whose children are in special education.
The maximum penalty would be unchanged for parents of students in regular classes.
Opponents of the bill say it makes no sense to single out the parents of students in special education. Supporters of the bill say attendance is especially important for students in special education. One parent says the bill is an attempt by schools to retaliate against frustrated parents who are pulling their special-needs children out of public schools.
The bill, House Bill 3402, is sponsored by Rep. Silvana Tabares, a Chicago Democrat. She did not return calls seeking comment.
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Under the bill, permitting truancy would become a class B misdemeanor in cases where the student is in special education. Under existing law, the charge is a less-serious class C misdemeanor for all parents.
The legislation’s supporters include regional superintendents of schools, who assist school districts in enforcing truancy laws, and the Illinois Federation of Teachers, a teacher union.
Bob Daiber, the regional superintendent for Madison County, said: “The regional superintendents support this bill because often the special-needs students are the most vulnerable, and they live in situations sometimes where education opportunities are most important to them because of their situation.”
Daiber, who is a former president of the Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools, said some parents of special-needs students might feel that school is of little benefit to their children. For those parents, attendance might not be a priority, he said.
“But there is much that these children can gain through education,” Daiber said. “It’s very important for them to attend school and become functional members of society.”
Melissa Taylor, who coordinates special education for Belleville School District 201, fears the legislation could backfire — resulting in parents taking their special-needs students completely out of school.
“The last thing we would want to see is a parent feeling they would want to take a child out of school because of this,” Taylor said. “We just worry about those unintended consequences.”
Taylor is president of the Illinois Alliance of Administrators of Special Education, which opposes the bill.
“We think that truancy is harmful, we want our kids to be in school, and we appreciate the sentiment, but as a general rule we are uncomfortable with things that separate out our students with disabilities,” Taylor said. “We feel like truancy is bad for all kids, and we don’t necessarily see the good that would come from singling out any specific group of students.”
Taylor said that, in her experience, truancy is not more of a problem among students in special education than it is among students in the general population.
“I’m confused by it,” Taylor said of the legislation. “I’m confused why they would want to single out a group.”
Sandra Fortmann of Hoffman Estates, a Chicago suburb, has a fifth-grade daughter with a learning disability. Fortmann said she decided to home-school her daughter following disputes with her school district regarding her education. Fortmann said there are many other parents like her, who have decided that the local school district doesn’t offer the type of services needed for their special-needs children.
When the students leave, the schools lose state reimbursements.
“That’s what this is all about,” Fortmann said. “The school districts are mad that parents are doing this. They’re punishing the parents.”
Fortmann said the legislation would be akin to a law that calls for harsher sentences for blacks or Hispanics.
“This bill does the same thing,” Fortmann said.
Some home-schooling organizations also oppose the bill. Kirk Smith, director of Illinois Christian Home Educators, said some home-schooling parents take advantage of certain special education programs offered at public schools. Those parents could potentially be affected by the legislation, he said.
Smith’s organization, in an alert to its members, stated: “Parents of special-needs kids need more understanding, more flexibility, more grace with attendance issues. House Bill 3402 does just the opposite. It treats them more harshly.”