Today on WNIJ’s Friday Forum, we take on education in Illinois.
State Rep. Bob Pritchard (R-Hinckley) is a member of the bipartisan bicameral commission tasked with reforming school funding in Illinois. The commission's recent report set a goal of increasing state funding for education from 26% to 50%. Pritchard says they also came up with 27 factors to help identify, then close, funding gaps between the wealthiest and poorest districts.
Pritchard says the gap between wealthier and poorer districts is so great that it’s affecting educational outcomes for students. The formation of the Illinois School Funding Reform Commission was a “realization we need a different funding mechanism.”
Pritchard says the biggest fear he heard from school leaders was losing money from the state, so the commission started with a foundation level for each district. Then members “honed in on an evidence-based model for funding education, using best practices to improve student learning.” By combining the basic funding level with the answers to 27 “best practices” factors, the commission came up with a formula for educating students based on a district’s needs.
The commission’s goal was to find a better way to pay for public education in Illinois, but it had to be done with the most important mission in mind: providing high-quality education. Pritchard says class size is an important factor, but “also the ability of a teacher to deal with the students he or she has. Teacher coaches, mentors, and instructional resource people are very critical.” And when rising poverty and issues facing low income students are factored in, Pritchard says it’s clear that students need more than “Readin’, ‘ritin’, and ‘rithmetic.” They need social services, healthcare, and psychological services. The 27 factors also take education beyond the traditional school, recognizing the importance of afterschool programs, summer school, counseling, and individual mentoring.
“In the sporting vernacular,” says Pritchard, “this is a game changer.” He has worked on education legislation throughout his 14 years as State Representative. He currently serves on five education-related committees in the House. What’s different about this effort, according to Pritchard, is that both parties and both chambers of the legislature have come together in the realization that the status quo cannot continue without hurting students and taxpayers. “We are spoiling too many lives, we’re missing too many opportunities, and it’s time to take action,” he says. “Those who are wealthy, bless you. If you want to keep high taxes, that’s your right. But a part of the final legislation might be an opportunity for taxpayers to say if we are funding well above the adequacy level, maybe we could lower taxes a little bit.”
The Cost of Reform
Pritchard admits that one of the biggest objections to the commission’s evidence- based funding reform proposal is the price tag. He says it could cost another $3 to $4 billion. And if they achieve the goal of having the state live up to covering at least 50% of public school funding, as mandated in the Illinois Constitution, it will cost much more than that. Pritchard says it’s time to make tough decisions about priorities. “If we look at it historically, what we’ve been doing in this state, we’ve been defunding not only K-12 education, but also higher education. And the ramifications of that defunding are going to be felt for generations.” He says per pupil funding has been stalled at $6,119 for six years, and now “the piper needs to be paid.”
So how do you sell school funding increases to fellow lawmakers, let alone the public, in this fiscal climate? Pritchard says he’s talking with the Republican caucus in the House. He’s sure there are many who will say “no cuts to education funding,“ and the commission agrees. Others will say their constituents need property tax relief and a reduction in school mandates from the state. That’s where the commission could not come to agreement. Pritchard says those will take time and more discussion: The commission reviewed suggestions from school superintendents about areas where they think they can cut costs, such as Everyday PE, driver’s education, transportation, and janitorial and food services. The commission couldn’t agree and decided to leave it up to the districts.
The Future With Education Secretary Betsy DeVos
Pritchard says control of education belongs at the state and local levels – not with the federal government. While he is skeptical of what he calls “a top-down approach,” he says the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act was a step in the right direction. It replaced “No Child Left Behind,” which gave the federal government more power over education. However, a Republican-led Congress is in the process of rolling back some of the Every Student Succeeds Act.
DeVos is a proponent of charter schools: Pritchard says he doesn’t see her stance making that much of a difference in Illinois, where there are laws allowing charter schools, but not a lot of demand for them.
Pritchard says the big question is whether school districts are responsive to the students they have and providing them with a quality education. He says that’s everyone’s responsibility. School report cards and funding transparency should help citizens be more active in their school districts, “because education is the key to the future of our economy.”
With a major state school, Northern Illinois University, in his district, Pritchard has always been very active in the debates around higher education at the capital. He says he has been impressed by the resiliency of the state’s institutes of education while they’ve dealt with decades of defunding. He says to compare the amount the state used to invest in the education of a college student to what is being spent today: “We’ve gone from something like $12 to $13 per $1 the student put in to now something like 30 cents to the $1 a student puts in. That’s a huge defunding of education.” Pritchard says that has damaged the state’s schools, but more importantly, it hurts students and communities. He says we’ve changed the curve for the American Dream: students with massive debt don’t expect to own a home, start a family, and may not settle in as engaged community members.
Colleges and universities need to be moved up higher on the state’s priority list, says Pritchard. Not only are young people finding cheaper options out of state, he sees the infrastructure on campuses being destroyed by negligence. He points to Stevens Hall at Northern Illinois University as an example of a building with serious physical needs, but the state has not come through with all of the funding promised to fix it. “It’s 100s of billions of dollars in facility costs. And that may be one of the things that all of this education funding is going to shake out. Maybe we have too many institutions. Maybe we can’t afford all those physical plants. What is a regional approach? What are the best research institutions? What are the next innovations that will grow our community? We need to focus our state resources more closely on a few rather than as many as we had. There’s a cost for convenience.”