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Education Desk: Purvis Proud Of Commission's Process

Beth Purvis made her first appearance as Secretary of Education at a School Management Alliance/Vision 2020 event.
Dusty Rhodes
NPR Illinois | 91.9 UIS
Beth Purvis made her first appearance as Secretary of Education at a School Management Alliance/Vision 2020 event.

Beth Purvis serves as Gov. Bruce Rauner's Secretary of Education, and she headed the 25-member commission he tasked with finding a way to make Illinois' school funding more equitable. After six months of meetings, the bipartisan panel adjourned yesterday releasing a report meant to guide lawmakers toward drafting a reform measure. Shortly after that final meeting, Purvis talked to me about the novel test she used with the commission, and why the panel stopped short of endorsing a specific plan.

Reporter: I remember when the governor established the (Illinois School Funding Reform) Commission, he voiced support for the “Evidence-Based Model,” this plan put forth by the Illinois School Management Alliance, and it was the most talked-about model in the commission. But the report doesn’t specify that as the best plan.

Purvis: I actually think that the report reflects the premise of the Evidence-Based Model, that you need adequacy targets for every district based on the needs of the students in the districts, and that you really need to look at best practices and expert opinion to build those adequacy targets. And I think even in the appendices, you’ll see a list of possible elements that can be included in that…

Reporter: … and there happens to be 27, just like the Evidence-Based Model.

Purvis: Right. But I also think there are a lot of decisions that members of the General Assembly are going to have to make.

Reporter: Okay, when I interviewed Sen. Karen McConnaughay (R-St. Charles), she said nobody is going to come out of this commission saying see, my plan was right all along. Not anybody’s plan. Not Sen. Andy Manar (D-Bunker Hill), not this one…

Purvis: Sen. McConnaughay is right. The bill that is developed out of this framework won’t belong to any one caucus or to the administration. It will be a reflection of this group that the governor brought together specifically to create a funding formula that works best for Illinois children.

Reporter: It seemed like that commission was working these fine little points, very detailed discussions, and finally came up with something I would say more than a framework, some real specific things. The state board ran the numbers for you, using 12 unidentified districts -- their identities were kept secret -- but they were representative of basically every kind of district across the state, except Chicago, and as far as I understand, the lawmakers still don’t know the identities of the districts that you ran the numbers for.

Purvis: That is correct.

Reporter: So you were just trying to test the pure concept of what the commission was looking at, at that point?

Purvis: Exactly. You know, we had done a lot of work on how the different parts of a school funding formula work. How do you set adequacy targets? What does a distribution model look like? We thought it really important to use representative districts rather than run the entire state, because once you run the entire state, people will become distracted by the numbers at the end of the process rather than how we got to those numbers.

Reporter: Everything I’ve watched try to get through the General Assembly, when it comes down to the wealthier districts are going to lose some money or not get as much as other districts, it kind of all comes to a halt. Even in the commission, there were moments where a lawmaker would say, “But this doesn’t seem fair!” So how do you get people over that hump?

Purvis: Well, I think that was part of the reason of having the bicameral bipartisan conversations in an open setting, in front of the advocates (aka "stakeholders" or lobbyists, representing school districts across the state, the School Management Alliance, teachers unions, special education, and other advocacy groups). You know, part of this was also to have conversations that are candid, and that allow these legislators to ask questions and to be honest about the complexities of their roles. The candid conversation that occurred in front of stakeholders I think brought to life the complexities of this, and I believe that these lawmakers can then share those conversations with their colleagues on the House and Senate floor about future legislation.

We'll have more of this interview with Secretary Purvis tomorrow.

After a long career in newspapers (Dallas Observer, The Dallas Morning News, Anchorage Daily News, Illinois Times), Dusty returned to school to get a master's degree in multimedia journalism. She began work as Education Desk reporter at NPR Illinois in September 2014.
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