School chief: Ill. will improve even without grant

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Illinois was shut out on a whopping federal education grant for a second time Tuesday despite building support and adopting school reform laws after losing out on the first round of money.

The state was hoping to use as much as $400 million in stimulus money from Washington to develop a statewide student data system, train teachers to better evaluate students and practice cutting-edge learning standards in their classrooms, and develop better leaders among school principals.

But Illinois was not among the 10 "Race to the Top" winners announced by the federal Education Department. Nine states and the District of Columbia will share $3.4 billion after $600 million went to Tennessee and Delaware last March, when Illinois officials say the state finished fifth in the running.

Galvanized by a first-round defeat, Illinois education officials sought more support for its plan and lawmakers adopted legislation overhauling school-principal preparation that federal reviewers thought was missing from the state's first application.

After finishing fifth in the first round, Illinois dropped to 15th out of 19 finalists in the second.

"We're going to continue to implement reforms that we put together as part of our application," state schools Superintendent Christopher Koch said in an afternoon conference call with reporters. "We were very cognizant in Illinois that we wanted to make an agenda around reforms that we knew were needed."

"Race to the Top" seeks innovative plans for adopting rigorous academic standards, rewarding excellence among teachers, improving low-performing schools and building data systems to judge progress."

Illinois seemed a shoo-in, given its high ranking last spring and the fact that President Barack Obama and his Education secretary, Arne Duncan, are both from Chicago.

But school districts have long jealously guarded their control over local education policy and are wary of outside government intervention. The state also is billions of dollars in the hole, raising questions about its ability to keep reforms going after federal money ends.

U.S. Rep. Judy Biggert, an Illinois Republican and member of the House Education and Labor Committee, said lack of local support still hampered the state in what she called a "flawed" process, one that emphasizes achievement on standardized tests over true learning, tying teacher pay to "faulty performance assessments" and curtailing local control.

Koch couldn't say what role the instability of state finances played in Washington's decision. The state faces a $13 billion deficit and Gov. Pat Quinn, given legislative authority to make broad spending decisions, already has announced $1.4 billion in cuts.

"That doesn't help," said Rep. Roger Eddy, R-Hutsonville. "Whenever there are cuts and looming cuts and the governor has the authority to change the budget on the fly up until January, that adds an instability to the whole situation and sustainability is one of the (selection) areas."

Eddy and Illinois Federation of Teachers spokesman Dave Comerford said the state's application was greatly improved over last spring.

Koch said the state has other federal grants -- such as $21 million for a long-term student achievement data system required by "Race to the Top" -- to start putting reforms in place.

And there's no reason the state can't piggyback on the successes of other states that are grant recipients.
"There's real promise in working together," Koch said.
Obama has requested $1.35 billion for a third round of "Race to the Top," but there's no guarantee the program will continue.