Guest Column: Fixing Illinois, part two: Illinois must upgrade education

James D. Nowlan (left) and J. Thomas Johnson
James D. Nowlan (left) and J. Thomas Johnson

Editor’s note: The following is the second installment of four in a series drawn from the new book Fixing Illinois, by James D. Nowlan and J. Thomas Johnson. Click here to view part one.

By James D. Nowlan and J. Thomas Johnson

Illinois’ achievement in education is mired in the middle of the states. If Illinois were to make a major commitment to transforming how we educate our children, we would send the world a strong signal that we were serious about fixing our state.

Illinois enrolls more than 3 million students from pre-kindergarten to post-graduate education, almost one in four of our residents, and spends more than $30 billion, or 4 percent of gross state product, on the enterprise.

Considered by many observers to be the most average of states on demographic and economic indicators, Illinois also ranked right in the middle of the states in 2011 on math and reading scores of eighth-graders. Although maybe predictable, this is not good enough.

Illinois must revamp its financing of schools, radically change the school calendar, and offer more school attendance choices for our students.

From 1992 to 2012, education spending in Illinois moved from below the national average to significantly above, at $12,368 per pupil versus the national average of $10,976. Yet, because spending is spread so unevenly among property rich and property poor districts, two-thirds of Illinois school districts have less to spend than the national average.

During the 2009-2010 academic year, the wealthiest elementary district in Illinois spent $24,000 per pupil and the poorest district about $6,000. These are outliers, yet a 2010 study found that Illinois had the second-highest overall disparity between rich and poor districts.

To finance our schools, we rely too heavily on the property tax, the value of which varies widely across the state, and not enough on general state sources of revenue.

Further, in 2012 the Illinois General State Aid (GSA) formula for local schools diverted more than $600 million (14 percent of total GSA) to property tax relief for school districts where property values had been rising rapidly.

State school funding has been hijacked from its fundamental purpose of reducing disparities in per-pupil funding among the state’s 867 districts.

Second, Illinois has a school calendar that was created in the horse-and-buggy days to accommodate the needs of the family farm. School is in session 176 days a year, for about six hours of classroom instruction per day, with summers off.

This compares badly with other developed and developing nations. Japanese children go to school seven hours a day for 240 days; German children attend school 210 days a year.

Then, there is the issue of the traditional three-month summer vacation. Teachers tell us they spend several weeks at the beginning of each school year reviewing what was learned the preceding year — and forgotten over the summer.

We recommend a year-round school calendar, with a one-month break in the winter and a one-month vacation in the summer, for about 200 days of school each year, and school days six-and-a-half to seven hours long.

Third, we believe that choice in schooling generates creativity and positive competition. There has always been choice. The nation’s elite have educated their children in private schools for centuries, and many denominational schools have served families that wanted a religious dimension to their children’s education.

Indiana has recently expanded options to include vouchers for low-income students to attend private schools; Indiana’s leaders are also encouraging development of public charter schools.

Further, the Hoosier State is following Iowa, which has for years allowed students to enroll in any public school in the state, with state school funding following the pupil. Illinois should follow its neighbors.

Illinois needs fundamental change in education to move us to the top ranks among our states and among other nations. Being mired in the middle is a disservice to our children.

James D. Nowlan and J. Thomas Johnson are former presidents of the Taxpayers’ Federation of Illinois. Their book,Fixing Illinois: Politics and Policy in the Prairie State, is a primer on Illinois state government with 90-plus suggestions for change.

Posted May 21, 2014

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