We Wrote a Bill
In 2015, the Illinois Legislature passed Senate Bill 100 (SB100) to create more effective student discipline practices in schools, and to address the state’s wide racial disparities around exclusionary discipline. The year implementation began, a group of Teach Plus Fellows in Illinois surveyed teachers in the state to understand how the legislation was being implemented in their schools. In 2017, a new group of Teach Plus Fellows took up the mantle. The Fellows wrote a bill based on Teach Plus teachers’ policy recommendations to make SB100’s implementation more effective.
What’s the Plus spoke with Teach Plus Fellows Mackenzie Beisser, a middle school special education teacher in CICS West Belden in Chicago and Keishonda Simms, a math, physical education, dance, and health teacher at William H. Ryder Math & Science Specialty School in Chicago, about what it was like to author a bill.
Let’s first talk about why you felt additional legislation was necessary.
Mackenzie: The intent of SB100 was to keep students in school and out of the criminal justice system. Teach Plus Fellows’ research shed light on some really positive aspects of the bill: The number of suspensions and expulsions did go down. However, what we heard from teachers over and over again was that the bill wasn’t being implemented in a way that made them feel supported. At best, teachers got a one-and-done professional development that didn’t help them to handle the same challenging behaviors for which students were no longer being expelled or suspended. At worst, they got no training at all.
We thought that a conversation with Senator Kimberly A. Lightford, who was a co-sponsor of the original bill, would be a great place to start. I don’t think any of us in the room thought we would be able to actually write a bill. My hope was that we could be a voice in her head when she was writing one. It turned out that she was really open to our input, and asked us to develop language for a trailer bill.
We love the idea of teachers being a voice in the senator’s head. What are the key points of the trailer bill?
Keishonda: Our research brought up feelings of powerlessness among teachers. They had been told: “No, we’re not suspending anymore.” Now what? Worse, now that there was no more suspension, kids could do whatever they wanted. We knew that we needed to fill in the gaps with specifics on restorative justice practices. To a group of teachers like us, who had a lot of powerful experiences with restorative practices, this meant a bag of resources that teachers and administrators could use to shape and guide behavior in their building in a way that made sense for their students.
Teachers don’t usually write bills. What was it like to work on this one?
Keishonda: When Senator Lightford proposed that we develop the language, our reaction was, we’ve never done this before. So we did a lot of leaning on each other. One of the first things we did as a group was look at what was already in the SB100 and what wasn’t. Some gaps stood out right away. For example, there was the directive not to suspend, but there was nothing about what you could do instead.
Mackenzie: There was a lot of, “What do you think about inserting something here, I don’t know if that clears up anything, let’s maybe do it here,” and a lot of back-and-forth comments on Google docs. The really important part was that six of us worked together. Of course, our perspective was that of educators but, as a team, we were able to build on each other’s knowledge and shift our mindset to incorporate the lenses of the various stakeholders―students, parents, administrators―who would be affected by the bill. We as teachers have an incredibly important perspective, but ours is not the only perspective.
How did it feel when you found out that the bill you authored was moving forward?
Keishonda: It was a huge surprise. I saw the subject pop up on my phone and then all the replies: “That’s awesome! Oh my God! That’s amazing!” I think the first person I called was my principal, who has been really supportive. He thought it was great news and put it in our school’s newsletter.
What do you hope will happen with this legislation?
Mackenzie: I hope that it’ll lead to some statewide changes and empower district administrators and teachers to use restorative practices. I think of behavior as a skill gap and restorative practices are a way to help fill those gaps so students can develop autonomous, productive behavior and become successful adults.
Should more teachers be creating educational policy?
Mackenzie: Yes. At the very least, teachers should be aware that they can be a voice in a legislator’s head. Even if we hadn’t written the bill, I would’ve still walked away from the meeting knowing that as experts in our buildings and in our classrooms we were able to articulate what was important to us.
Keishonda: Yes. If more teachers are involved in the process, there will be a lot more buy-in when are laws are passed and make it to our schools. It can be scary stepping out of the classroom where you’re the expert, but it’s exciting and absolutely worth it.
Mackenzie Beisser is a 6th-8th grade special education teacher at CICS West Belden in Chicago. She is a Teach Plus Illinois Teaching Policy Fellow.
Keishonda Simms is a PreK-8th grade PE, dance & health teacher at William H. Ryder Math & Science Specialty School in Chicago. She is a Teach Plus Illinois Teaching Policy Fellow and a Chicago Change Agent Teacher Leader.