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Ends and Means: Illinois' Budget Woes Could Undercut Its Application for Federal Education Dollars

Charles N. Wheeler III
WUIS/Illinois Issues

Can Illinois finish in the money in Round II of Race to the Top?

The answer could hinge on budget decisions that state lawmakers will make in coming days.

At stake is as much as $400 million to underwrite efforts to improve Illinois schools under Race to the Top, the education centerpiece of the Obama administration.

The federal program aims at strengthening the nation’s schools in four areas, according to the U.S. Department of Education: adopting standards and assessments that prepare students for success in college and the workplace; creating information systems to measure student growth and improve teaching; enhancing recruitment, development and retention of effective teachers and principals; and turning around the lowest-performing schools.

In the initial competition, Illinois was among 16 finalists out of 40 states and the District of Columbia that submitted applications for $4.35 billion in federal aid but eventually wound up fifth. Only two states were awarded grants: Delaware, $100 million, and Tennessee, $500 million.

Applications for the second round, worth about $3.4 billion, are due June 1. 

While the five reviewers who scored Illinois’ initial application generally praised its quality and the ambitious reform agenda set out, they voiced reservations that state education leaders hope to address in crafting the new version.

Overall, Illinois averaged 423.8 on a 500-point scale, about 85 percent. But the state fared poorly in two of the six general categories used in the assessment, one dealing with the state’s ability to carry out reforms over the long haul (74.6 percent), and the other encompassing teacher and principal evaluations based on student performance (79.7 percent). One reviewer questioned whether the State Board of Education — down about a third in staff over the last decade — has the personnel to implement the far-reaching plan itself or to manage key reforms if they’re handed off to regional and local organizations.

“The state may be attempting to do too much, with too little time and too little human capital,” the reviewer observed.

Several reviewers had serious questions about the state’s ability to measure student learning in the wake of what one termed “a catastrophic failure” of the standard achievement test introduced in 2006. While a new assessment model is being developed and is to be phased in during the next few years, its absence now could slow down the pace of reform, cautioned a reviewer.

The reviewers also faulted the state for not requiring annual evaluations of tenured teachers, with a goal of firing ineffective ones more quickly. Legislation enacted in January requires that student performance be a significant component of teacher and principal evaluations starting in 2012 but leaves many of the specifics up to local school officials, which “may provide wiggle room to possibly game the system,” one reviewer wrote.

All the reviewers mentioned the lukewarm support from local school districts and teachers’ unions, which could limit the plan’s statewide impact. Only about 40 percent of the state’s 869 districts signed on, and fewer than a third of the locals representing teachers in the participating school districts endorsed the plan, despite its endorsement by leaders of the state’s two major teachers’ unions.

The union reluctance “may indicate a strong potential for no cooperation and perhaps resistance from local teachers’ unions in some or even a majority” of the participating districts, one reviewer wrote.

Cautioned another: “It is unclear ... to what extent the state union leadership will work with its local unions ... to increase commitment among those unions who have not endorsed” the state application.

State schools Supt. Christopher Koch acknowledged the concern. “While we had sign-on from districts representing more than 74 percent of all students and more than 80 percent of low-income students, the reviewers focused on the large number of districts that did not sign,” he said in a message to school officials seeking their help in getting more school districts and local unions to join the plan.

Some districts may not have signed the initial application because of the tight timeline involved. Final details of Race to the Top were announced in mid-November, with a mid-January submission deadline. With several more months to weigh participation, local districts could be more inclined to sign up, suggested Mary Fergus, a board spokeswoman.

Local school boards also might be concerned about taking on additional costs for the reforms. Districts endorsing the plan, for example, will have to adopt the new student performance-based evaluation system for teachers and principals more quickly.

While Koch and other education leaders work to shore up the state’s application for the June 1 deadline, the state’s budget woes could undercut their efforts.

Among the factors for which the reviewers gave the state high marks were its commitment to making school funding a priority, with several noting that education’s share of the state budget has risen in recent years.

Other reviewers lauded the state’s early childhood education programs. “Illinois has been a leader in recognizing the importance of early childhood development and education for later academic success,” wrote one reviewer. “Illinois serves a higher percentage of 3-year-olds than any other state and has extensive services for infants and toddlers.”

Yet Gov. Pat Quinn’s proposed budget would slash education funding by $1.2 billion, slightly more than 16 percent, including a $54 million cut in early childhood programs. Moreover, in recent weeks school districts across the state have announced plans to eliminate preschool programs in anticipation of less state money.

Quinn says the education cuts can be avoided if the legislature raises income tax rates by 1 percentage point — to 4 percent for individuals and 5.8 percent for corporations — but lawmakers are fearful of raising taxes in an election year and equally loath to reduce school funding. That dilemma suggests a reprise of last spring’s budget fiasco: approve spending more dollars than the state will have, let the comptroller figure out who gets paid and who gets stiffed, and hope that the folks who review Illinois’ next Race to the Top application won’t notice the fiscal chicanery.


Gov. Pat Quinn’s proposed budget would slash education funding by $1.2 billion, slightly more than 16 percent.

Charles N. Wheeler III is director of the Public Affairs Reporting program at the University of Illinois at Springfield. 

Illinois Issues, May 2010

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