Lawmakers voted 33-20 for Senate Bill 2494 to create a pilot program allowing Chicago parents to use vouchers to take their children to different schools. Moments later, senators approved Senate Bill 935, which could limit traffic tickets from red light cameras in Chicago and its suburbs, with a 45-10 vote.
Heading into their two-week spring break, state senators approved Thursday dealing with controversies over school choice and roadway cameras.
Lawmakers voted 33-20 for Senate Bill 2494 to create a pilot program allowing Chicago parents to use vouchers to take their children to different schools.
Moments later, senators approved Senate Bill 935, which could limit traffic tickets from red light cameras in Chicago and its suburbs, with a 45-10 vote.
Both measures now head to the House for debate.
Sponsored by longtime school reform advocate and state Sen. James Meeks, D-Chicago, the voucher program would apply to 49 schools in Chicago and could affect as many as 22,000 students.
Parents or guardians of an eligible child would have to apply for the voucher through the Illinois State Board of Education. That voucher would then be redeemable at other schools in the Chicago area, including private, parochial and charter schools.
The vouchers would not allow eligible students to attend a school of choice in Chicago's suburbs.
"This will give an opportunity to parents and an opportunity to kids to have a choice," Meeks said. "So we can help more children escape the dismal reality of Chicago public schools."
Opponents said the bill was targeting the wrong problem.
"We are not getting to the root cause," said state Sen. Mike Jacobs, D-East Moline. "It's the diversity in the dollars and funding that is our problem."
Others said it's misguided to think public school problems aren't found in private schools.
"Thinking somehow Catholic schools will do a better job ... the Catholic schools have proven that in these neighborhoods, they have failed. They have closed down their doors because they didn't have the resources," said Sen. Kwame Raoul, D-Chicago, of schools in his city.
The red-light measure, sponsored by Senate President John Cullerton, would make the red-light camera system more lenient and transparent by giving drivers some breaks. Those include not issuing a ticket for drivers that stop past a stop line or crosswalk in certain cases and allowing violators to see their offense via an online video.
Some opponents of the bill were not happy that lobbyists of red-light firms received a seat at the negotiation table while drafting the legislation. Some lawmakers say ticketing drivers through red-light cameras have more to do with boosting local revenues than safety.
Cullerton said his proposal is aimed at debunking that idea.
The measure eliminates the $100 fee associated with appealing the ticket and would not penalize drivers for losing an appeal.
"It has come to our attention through news stories and other pieces of legislation that there are more protections needed - for motorists - to be taken and that is what this bill is all about," Cullerton said. "I believe it is clear there is still a need, for safety reasons, to make sure that people are not running red lights."
The bill would also require cities to post online where the cameras are.
"We're not here to trick anybody," Cullerton said.
But state Sen. Dan Duffy, R-Barrington, said Cullerton's proposal glosses over several key issues.
Duffy is pushing a bill that's now stalled to ban all red-light cameras. He said Cullerton's bill doesn't stop ineffective cameras from being removed.
"People do believe this is all about revenue and not about safety," Duffy said. "This bill skillfully skates around the issue but does not address anything about removing cameras."
But Cullerton said that is covered.
Under the legislation, cities that have cameras would be required to study the effects of the cameras at the intersection in which they are located. Cameras could be removed if studies revealed they provided no safety benefit.
Brian Feldt can be reached at 217-782-6292 or Brian.email@example.com.