Monday, August 30, 2010

Illinois' race for education funds spurred reforms

By Jamey Dunn

Losing both rounds in the Race to the Top federal grant competition was a frustrating experience, but Illinois is better for having tried, according to state schools Superintendent Christopher Koch.

In the first round of the competition, the U.S. Department of Education doled out $4.35 billion to two states. Illinois placed fifth with a score of 423.8 out of 500. In phase two, 10 states got $3.4 billion, and Illinois was 15th with a score of 426.6.

Koch said the Illinois State Board of Education worked hard to get more school districts and unions to sign on for phase two. The state’s participation levels were criticized in the first phase. (For more on this effort, see Illinois Issues, September 2010, page 13.)

He said some local officials were concerned about allowing the federal government to have too much control over education. Expanding programs based on federal grants that expire was also an issue. Schools were concerned about where the money would come from when the grants ran out.

Koch added it is difficult for Illinois to compete with states that have fewer districts. In some of the winning states, each county is a school district. By comparison, Illinois has 102 counties and 869 school districts. Two of the winners, the District of Columbia and Hawaii, each have just one district. “We have to just sell it to local boards and local school districts and local unions again and again and again. It just requires an awful lot of selling.”

Koch said the schools participating represent 82 percent of students in Illinois.

ISBE officials focused on the areas that lost points on the first round while doing little to change parts of the application that scored well. However, a completely new panel scored the second round. Koch said some of the areas of the application that impressed the judges in the first round failed to do so in the second. “It makes it hard because we were responding to the first application.” He added that because the judges do not compare the states and not all the same judges scored every state, some states had lower participation levels than Illinois but scored higher on that section of the application. “My take on this is that it depends on the team [of judges] you’ve got. … It sort if makes it more like a Race to the Top lottery.”

While the loss was disappointing, Koch said, competing in Race to the Top did spur important reforms that he said would have not happened as quickly on their own, such legislation that requires higher standards for principal certification. “I think that overall, that we are better for having gone through this process. … These are the right reforms.”

Funding for education jobs

Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin announced in Chicago today that the federal government has released $415 million to help save education jobs in Illinois. Officials can begin allocating the money today. Koch called for the General Assembly to appropriate the funds in a special session, but Gov. Pat Quinn has said a special session is unnecessary, so it likely will not happen. Durbin estimates it will save 5,700 education jobs in the state.


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