Thursday, March 18, 2010

Cuts could hurt Race to the Top application

By Rachel Wells

A day after state officials presented their case in Washington, D.C., the state superintendent of schools said cuts to education could harm Illinois’ chances to obtain the $510 million it seeks from the federal Race to the Top grant program.

Race to the Top is a $4.35 billion education reform initiative with four key components: improving standards and assessments, developing student growth data systems, rewarding quality teachers and improving underachieving schools.

During yesterday’s interview, federal officials questioned Illinois’ capacity to provide services and its ability to sustain those services when Race to the Top funding ends, state Superintendent Chris Koch said.

“My understanding … is that all the states are being hit hard on [capacity and sustainability],” Koch said. “Keep in mind, some of the states that are hemorrhaging the worst – California, Michigan – aren’t even in the running for these funds. So I do think there could be an implication with reductions to our budget.”

Although the Illinois State Board of Education had sought nearly $1 billion of additional funding for Fiscal Year 2011, Gov. Pat Quinn last week proposed about $1.2 billion in education cuts. Quinn strongly suggested in his budget address that lawmakers approve a 1 percentage point income tax surcharge to benefit education. The proposed tax increase would provide an estimated $2.8 billion, according to Quinn’s budget director, David Vaught. The state cannot use Race to the Top funds to stabilize the budget, which is expected to show a deficit of more than $13 billion by the end of Fiscal Year 2010.

Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia, an Aurora Democrat who worked on Race to the Top legislation passed earlier this year, said she’s still optimistic, considering other states’ financial difficulties during the current recession. But she’s still concerned that Illinois could be tossed out of the pool and that Illinois students will lose out on educational opportunities if cuts aren’t shifted and structural budget reform is not achieved.

“I’m hoping we come to a resolve before our next deadline for Race to the Top. If we do, it’s left to be seen,” Chapa LaVia said. She added that she doesn’t expect the General Assembly to vote on Quinn’s proposed tax increase this spring. “It’s a possible chance that if we don’t get the [Race to the Top] money, this will be put on the back burner just like education [funding] reform has been for the last 20 years.”

Regardless of whether Illinois’ application succeeds, the state will continue to pursue some elements included in its Race to the Top application plans. Those elements include a longitudinal data plan and raising teacher requirements, two items already in motion, Koch said.

Before applying, Illinois passed legislation raising the cap on the number of charter schools in the state, tying student growth to teacher evaluations and expanding alternative teacher certification programs.

Other reforms – such as a learning and performance management database shared by all Illinois districts and kindergarten readiness assessment measures – likely won’t happen without the federal reform funds, Koch said.

“It’s one thing to say we want everyone to be accountable and move forward, but that doesn’t happen without funding, unfortunately,” Koch said.

The federal government will announce phase one grant recipients two weeks from today, on April 1. If not selected at that time, Illinois officials plan to reapply for phase two after receiving feedback from federal officials.


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