SPRINGFIELD — — After a two-year reprieve, Illinois high school juniors will be tested on their writing skills again next spring during state standardized tests.
Yet lawmakers did not allot an extra $2.5 million to pay for the exams across the state, raising hackles among critics of the legislative budget process after Democrats celebrated not having to cut education funding for the first time in four years.
State education officials say they now are hunting for a way to pay for the tests, possibly by seeking an extra appropriation from lawmakers.
Advocates of restoring the writing test say the move is in anticipation of major state education reforms that stress critical thinking more heavily. Educators fear that some Illinois schools dropped an emphasis on writing skills when the yearly assessments were halted in 2011.
The move reflects a "concern that writing was not being taken as seriously as it should be," said state Sen. Dan Kotowski, a Democrat who helped negotiate the education budget. "This is determined to be something that has a strong impact on student performance in the classroom — a predictor of success."
But Republican lawmakers say it illustrates a problem with the state's approach to budgeting, and how Democrats seek to spend money the state doesn't have. In keeping education funding even this year, lawmakers took advantage of a so-called "April Surprise," a windfall of one-time tax revenues. But some critics say the Democrats went too far in adding back programs the state can't afford.
"That's the challenge we have when we talk about new revenue," said state Rep. Bob Pritchard, a Republican on the House education committee who voted against the state schools budget. "We find the Legislature wants to spend that and more. We find creative ways to say we have a balanced budget and (then) incur unpaid bills."