Guest Column: Action must match rhetoric to achieve education goals

By Brent Clark, Ph. D.
Executive Director of the Illinois Association of School Administrators

Education is the key to economic empowerment. It’s the best way for equal opportunity for the most people in a democracy.”

When Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn (D) spoke those words during his 2010 State of the State Address, those of us involved in educating children saw a glimmer of hope that this governor understood how important education is, not only to the students, but to the future of our state.

We probably should not be surprised or allow ourselves to be disappointed when actions do not match political rhetoric. Being governor is a tough job, even more so these days in Illinois, where the only thing worse than the political climate might be the economic climate. The economy has been in a prolonged slump. Budgets everywhere are tight. We get that.

However, there are no mulligans or hold harmless escape clauses when it comes to educating students. Today’s administrators and teachers are being asked to do a lot more with a lot less when one looks at the budgets versus the expectations.

The No Child Left Behind federal initiative to have every child meet ambitious academic performance standards in reading, math and science is admirable as a goal, but as a law it fails the common sense test because it fails to realize that all children are not the same when it comes to learning, and no two school districts are the same when it comes to resources.

In no state is that more pronounced than in Illinois, where local property taxes provide the majority of public school funding in most communities. General State Aid (GSA) is somewhat of an equalizer in theory, as it is supposed to provide the difference between local funding and the so-called foundation level of $6,119 established by the General Assembly to educate one student. Even that number is well below the $8,360 that an Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) blue-ribbon panel, the Education Funding Advisory Board, found it would cost to provide an “adequate” education for a student in FY2012.

Now, even the $6,119 is not being met as it was reduced 5 percent for this fiscal year, meaning districts will not receive what they were promised this year, and the foundation level is effectively reduced to approximately $5,800. While ISBE has proposed a small increase in GSA for the next fiscal year, it still falls well below the foundation amount. The governor is calling for a flat GSA budget; therefore, schools will see another 8 percent reduction in state support for education.

Couple that with a more than 40 percent cut to transportation funding over the past three years and the prospect of children not just being left behind, but literally being left at the curb, becomes more possible. ISBE is looking at alternative formulas for transportation and perhaps even eliminating some of the transportation mandates. But removing the mandates does not eliminate the need to provide transportation in many school districts. Bus transportation long has been a staple of public education in those communities.

Charging fees is possible, but would not be well received by parents who already are paying taxes to fund the local portion of public school transportation. Also, a fee system is not feasible in the growing number of school districts where poverty is a major factor.

On top of the cuts to GSA, transportation and the habitual late payments by the state to school districts, there is serious discussion in the capital about shifting the state’s portion of the teachers’ pension payments to local school districts. Though the details are unknown at this time, that shift of an estimated $800 million would place significant additional budget pressure on school districts throughout the state.

School districts have only three options when faced with dwindling funds or new expenses: they can try to bargain down salaries and benefits, they can raise local taxes if they are not already at their tax cap limits, or they can make operational and programmatic cuts. The more the cost of education is shifted to local school districts, the greater the gap becomes between the haves and have nots.

Consolidation has been floated as a simple answer to some of these problems — and consolidation can be a viable solution in certain cases where it makes sense academically, fiscally and is acceptable to local voters. But the “Classrooms First” Commission that has been studying consolidation reported that forced consolidation could result in higher costs because of teachers all going under the highest contract of the merging districts and the need for larger buildings, increased transportation costs and the like.

A national study at Ohio University titled “Consolidation of Schools and Districts: What the Research Says and What It Means” concluded that consolidation is a complex issue, that bigger is not necessarily better, and that forced consolidation simply does not work.

The bottom line to having an excellent education system is actually the bottom line: If education is as important as the politicians tell us it is — if it really is the best investment in our state’s future — then the state needs to properly fund it as a top priority.

Making sure that every child in Illinois has access to a quality education is a top priority of my administration and parents throughout Illinois.”— Gov. Quinn in a Sept. 15, 2011, press release

Words are great, and those are great words. But in the end, we’re all judged by our actions.

Brent Clark is the executive director of the Illinois Association of School Administrators, a statewide association of more than 1,700 members that has been a voice for school administrators since 1946 with a vision of “Maximum Educational Success for All Students.” Clark was a teacher, coach, principal and superintendent prior to becoming the head of the IASA.

From the March 14-20, 2012, issue

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