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Thursday, Nov. 20, 2014 12:01 am

Going to bat for education

School administrators banding together for reform

Illinois schools do a pretty good job, considering the state’s poor record of funding education. But Illinois’ system needs fundamental changes to be more efficient, effective and equitable.

That’s the message of a group of school administrators calling for a comprehensive overhaul of how Illinois staffs, funds and equips its schools. The group, Vision 20/20, is planning a major legislative push to implement its plan over the next six years.

About two years ago, nearly 70 superintendents and other administrators from schools across Illinois began meeting with experts from across the nation to discuss the problems in Illinois schools. The product of their meetings is a four-pronged attack on underfunding, inequality and inefficiency in the state’s education system. The group plans to focus on increasing the number of effective teachers in Illinois, modernizing the curricula, increasing accountability for school districts and the state, and reconfiguring how Illinois schools are funded.

“Education is an investment in our children’s future, our state’s future, and our nation’s future,” said Brent Clark, executive director of the Illinois Association of School Administrators. “It is our responsibility as educators to take action to create an education system that meets the needs of all students.”

Vision 20/20 is comprised of the Illinois Principals Association, the Illinois Association of School Business Officials, the Illinois Association of School Boards, the Superintendents’ Commission for the Study of Demographics and Diversity, and the Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools. Although reform plans have been previously offered by groups representing teachers, Vision 20/20 believes this is the first time a large-scale reform plan has been offered by school administrators.

Charlie Rose, former general counsel for the U.S. Department of Education, said the plan gives voice to the needs of children in Illinois.

“In my many years of involvement in the field of education, this kind of management-led collaboration and policy-driven document is unprecedented in Illinois,” Rose said. “There are two million children in our state whose voices and future need to be addressed.  This is a positive start in the right direction.”

The plan contains both simple fixes that are likely to garner wide support – such as a “reciprocity agreement” allowing teachers certified in other states to teach in Illinois – along with more fundamental changes likely to face significant pushback. Among the more politically challenging ideas is overhauling the state education formula to promote more equity in funding between wealthy districts and poorer districts.

A case in point is the plan proposed by Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, earlier this year. Senate Bill 16 would change the state’s school funding formula to shift more money toward districts with higher poverty and smaller property tax bases. The plan prompted breathless opposition from lawmakers in suburban Chicago whose districts would lose some funding. The Illinois Senate passed the bill 32-19 in May, but it appears to have stalled in the House under political pressure.

The Vision 20/20 plan doesn’t call for a specific approach like Manar’s, and the groups making up Vision 20/20 are officially neutral on his bill, but any attempt to rearrange funding between districts is likely to meet strong resistance.

Ralph Martire, executive director for the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, has watched Illinois fail to fund schools adequately for years, and he has seen several other reform proposals die because of what he calls “political gridlock.” However, Martire supports the Vision 20/20 plan because it incorporates evidence-based best practices from other states. He calls the plan a “rational” approach to school funding.

“For decades, Illinois has failed to provide a meaningful educational opportunity to all children in the state – a failure that not only hurts kids but also harms the economy,” Martire said. “While other factors have played roles, there’s no question that the core driver of this failure has been the lack of political will to reform the state’s school funding system, which is both inadequate to meet the educational needs of all children, and inequitable in how it distributes resources.”

Among other planks of the Vision 20/20 plan are proposals to offer student loan forgiveness for teachers, improve professional development for existing teachers, offer more career-oriented instruction for students, install high-speed Internet at every school and increase parent and community involvement in schools. The full report is available at www.illinoisvision2020.org.

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.

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