Pioneer Local

Pressing school issues sure to test legislators

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Illinois legislators will have plenty of school issues clamoring for attention after the November election and school funding is sure to be the huge gorilla sitting in on every debate.

Consider just three statistics suggesting that many Illinois' students won't be prepared to compete for jobs in a global economy:

(1) Only 57 percent of high school juniors passed the state's reading test in 2009. In mathematics, the passing rate dropped to 52 percent; in science, 51 percent.

(2) Only 23 percent of 2010 high school graduates who took the ACT met college-readiness benchmarks in all four test areas: English, math, reading and science.

(3) Illinois ranked 38th on a recently released study of low-income students' performance and gains on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). The study was sponsored by the American Legislative Exchange Council.

If such omens aren't enough reason for state legislators to up-end the status quo, reform movements are forcing Illinois and other states to re-examine everything from charter schools and testing instruments to teacher seniority rules.

"We know that education hasn't been working as well as it needs to, and it hasn't been working too much for the kids in the schools," said Robin Steans, executive director of Advance Illinois, an education policy and advocacy group. "Even if you think your kid is one of the kids getting a good education, the state sinks or swims based on how the whole system is going."

The fruits of success

Steans noted that successful students are more likely to be employed, avoid the criminal justice system, lead healthier lives and be more involved in their communities.

Eight years ago, the landmark No Child Left Behind Law cast a bright light on how schools educate vulnerable students. The law forced schools to look closely at how African-American, Latino, low-income and disabled students are faring, as well as students learning to speak English.

Schools are required to make yearly progress toward the ultimate goal that all students would be proficient by 2014. They've been penalized if they didn't keep up with the law's ever-rising targets.

But the federal law allowed each state to define proficiency and devise its own tests. When the Illinois Standards Achievement Test is held up against the NAEP exam and the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP), studies have shown Illinois has some of the lowest expectations in the nation.

Illinois also has some of the widest funding disparities among districts, thanks to its system of paying for education primarily through property taxes. Often school systems with a dearth of resources serve primarily poor and minority students.

Tax-swap plan missing

While earlier tax-hike proposals would have swapped higher income taxes for a portion of the property taxes paid to schools, the controversial tax swap doesn't appear in recent tax-hike legislation.

These days, the bigger question for many suburban educators is whether they can count on any state money going forward.
Some school boards have put off deep budget cuts, waiting to see what happens after the Nov. 2 election.

"Funding is always the big elephant in the room," said Jason Leahy, executive director of the Illinois Principals Association. "Now you have the pressure of a state that is in a serious fiscal crisis. That makes it an even bigger issue for schools."

Quinn, Brady differ

Illinois Gov. Patrick Quinn has backed a 1 percent "education surcharge" that would effectively raise the state's flat 3 percent tax rate to 4 percent, a smaller and more targeted increase than what many believe is needed.

Quinn's Republican opponent, Bill Brady, is opposed to any tax increase.

House Speaker Michael Madigan has distanced himself from the Quinn surcharge, saying he isn't in favor of it and isn't sure if his members will support it.

Frustrated in his attempts to acquire more school funding for poor schools, State Sen. James T. Meeks, D-15th, who chairs the Senate's Elementary and Secondary Education Committee, put forward a bill this year to provide state-funded vouchers -- each worth $3,700 -- to allow about 30,000 Chicago students to attend private or parochial schools.

The money was to be directed at children assigned to the worst-performing Chicago schools, or high-poverty schools that are overcrowded.

The bill, which provoked the first serious discussion of vouchers in 14 years, passed the Senate in March, but was defeated in the House in May amid furious lobbying by teachers' unions. The unions argued the money would help only a small fraction of needy students across the state.

Steans believes education should be high on voters' minds as they evaluate candidates.

"Education is one of those investments that people really can't afford to back away from," she said. "Do our candidates get that? Do they live, eat and breathe that?
"When times are hard, we sacrifice education at our short- and long-term peril."