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Hickrod: scholar turned crusader for equitable school funding

In 1955, G. Alan Hickrod climbed into a station wagon full of Harvard government students headed for a tour of the worst and best of Boston public schools. The tour of social inequality left a lasting impression with the 25-year-old graduate student who had never known poverty in his hometown of Fort Branch, Ind. "The vivid contrast between the kind of educational facilities that were available to kids in the wealthy suburbs in Boston and what was available to the poor ... I don't think that ever left my mind," Hickrod says.

Thirty-five years later, Hickrod, an education administration professor at Illinois State University in Normal, has placed himself in the driver's seat. Hickrod is leading efforts to challenge the wide disparities in per pupil spending across the state. Hickrod, the co-chairman of the Coalition for Educational Rights Under the Constitution, says a lawsuit could be filed as early as spring if financial support for the lawsuit is strong enough among its members: the Illinois Farm Bureau; the Voice of the Prairie, a rural interest group; and school districts themselves.

After years as one of the most prominent critics of state education financing, Hickrod, at age 60, is preparing to take on the system. Championing the cause of rural Illinois and its small towns, Hickrod argues that sluggish economic growth has left them in the wake of escalating economic gains in the Chicago suburbs: "It seems to me that further aggravates the equity problem and that someone ought to point this out. If it was just the haves and have nots. ... — we've had them since the beginning of time —but the situation is getting worse. That's what drives me."

Despite his strong convictions, Hickrod views himself as a "reluctant warrior," and he is uneasy about the role he would play in a lawsuit. "I really see myself as a quiet scholar," he said. "But I think I've learned over time that you just can't accomplish enough that way." In his eyes, necessity has thrust him into the center of debate. No other school finance expert with the clout needed to carry a lawsuit has come forward, and Hickrod sees himself duty-bound to his cause, "I don't have any way out," he said. "This is a responsibility, and I've got to do it. Again it's because I have nobody else. Who do I turn it over to?"

The potential lawsuit will likely cap Hickrod's efforts to change the system. "Alan is approaching retirement, and he sees the lifelong struggle not coming to a closure," says James Gordon Ward, a school finance guru at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. "He's like the old coach who really wants one big victory before he retires."

A heart attack 10 years ago slowed Hickrod and prompted thoughts of early retirement. "I realized I had to do other things in my life than constantly study school finance," he says. Yet, he is determined to stay in the possible legal tangle until the end: "If we're going to have a brawl here, I'd like to stick around and see how it comes out."

Hickrod admits that his emergence as an advocate for change could be criticized by other academicians. "There are those who believe education finance can be approached from a totally objective stance," Hickrod says. "I have a hard time with that. I tend to charge ahead when I believe I'm right."

Hickrod believes strongly in the power of education, perhaps because he has seen its influence on his own life. His mother, a school teacher, fostered a love of learning early in his life. His enthusiasm and drive took him from a small southern Indiana town boasting one meat-packing plant and a coal mine to the halls of Harvard.

The "man of big appetites," as he describes himself, has never stopped learning. He consumes volumes of history and political philosophy in his spare time and is known to indulge in fine cuisine. He admits his love of good food has been his weakness and the cause of a lifelong weight problem. Hickrod is not one to do things in half measures. In the words of his friends, he is a sort of Renaissance man whose leisure time is as focused as his work. The fourth-generation Scotsman is one

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of only 100,000 people in the world to speak the dying Scottish Gaelic dialect, which he began studying three years ago with the help of a tutor.

While he may be serious about school finance, he is personable and down-to-earth. "There are people that would be so haughty and demanding in this position," says Richard Yong, one of Hickrod's former graduate research assistants. Despite the strides he has made in life, he remains loyal to his smalltown beginning. Hickrod visits his hometown every year.

Far from a grandstander, Hickrod has spent much of his 24 years of school finance study behind the scenes. He is among a small core of researchers at the Center for the Study of Educational Finance at ISU, established in 1975 by the General Assembly to monitor the school funding formula. He has gained the respect of school finance experts across the country and was elected president of the American Education Finance Association in 1984. Hickrod stresses that he is one player on a team at the center. The data is too complex for one man to assess, he says. But Hickrod's personal crusade to test the mettle of the funding formula and to ensure equity to all Illinois students has made him a much sought-out resource.

"Some people go from issue to issue, but Alan has had this one enduring theme," Ward says. "As such, he's made himself a major force in the field. By constantly hammering on this theme, he's placed the issue on the public policy agenda and kept it there."

The lawmakers who seek Hickrod's expertise credit his balance and honesty in presenting the facts. "One of the good things about Alan is that he would explain the negative and positive of everything," says Sen. Arthur Berman (D-2, Chicago). "He realizes that in this field the legislature must make the decision.'' Those same lawmakers say Hickrod has held true to his own beliefs. "He has a very frank and thorough way of being nice to you but telling you how you're wrong and how we [the General Assembly] should change. . .," says Sen. John Maitland (R-44, Bloomington). "You always know how he stands on an issue."

Hickrod says he has been trying since 1976 to reverse declining state funding for public schools. "As the data showed, we just kept getting worse and worse," he said. "In essence, we [the center] were put in the position of a physician whose patient is dying. We had to start screaming practically."

Hickrod's numbers are widely circulated but not always uncritically accepted. Tossed about freely last year were center figures that said per capita spending for public education in Illinois had plummeted from seventh among all states for the 1977-1978 school year to 44th for the 1987-1988 school year. Despite its use, the figure ignores declining enrollment, a criticism that Hickrod acknowledges. Over the period covered by Hickrod's study, attendance in Illinois public schools dropped 17 percent.

Recent school finance reform victories in Kentucky, Texas and Montana state courts have fueled speculations about the success of a lawsuit in Illinois. Renewed public interest and media attention on school funding have boosted the efforts of reformers like Hickrod, but prodding legislators into action is not always easy. "The General Assembly responds well to a crisis," Hickrod says, "but if it's slowly getting worse, they're not apt to do anything about it."

Computer technology hampers any tinkering with state funding (unless every place and everyone gets an increase) since legislators can instantly assess the effect of any funding change on their districts. "No one seems to be willing to vote for a bill unless they've checked out exactly what the new bill does for their constitutency,'' Hickrod says. " I feel that on the school finance side, the introduction of the 'computer polities' has really made it very difficult to change legislation."

' I try to determine what is educationally sound first and then I moderate that in terms of what I think I can accomplish'

Some who favor equity question the effectiveness of litigation to change the system because of uncertainty within the judicial process. "I've been a believer that when you go to court, you lose control of the issue," says Michael Belletire, now on leave as associate superintendent of finance and support services for the State Board of Education. Belletire adds that he does not think Hickrod made the decision lightly.

Hickrod sees the suit as the best way to break the General Assembly's gridlock. "I'm not saying winning the case will be easy," he says. "But in a sense, I don't see how you can lose too much. The pressure that one would bring on the General Assembly by the lawsuit ought to be enough to move the legislation that you want in the right direction."

In the political arena, Hickrod is as much a realist as he is an idealist. "I try to determine what is educationally sound first and then I moderate that in terms of what I think I can accomplish," he says. Around the Illinois political scene since 1966, he has cultivated political acumen. "He has certainly had an influence with key legislators in dealing with school finance reform," Berman says.

Hickrod is noted as one of the key authors of the "resource equalizer" school funding formula adopted by the General Assembly in 1973. The formula, a groundbreaking plan for its time, designates money for school districts on the basis of need rather than a flat grant to each district. Hickrod is proudest of a piece of that formula that he designed. He developed the "Chapter I weighting" factor to give additional state funds to districts with a high concentration of impoverished students. "If I wanted to be remembered for anything, I'd want to be remembered for that," he said. "That made a big difference to places like Chicago, East St. Louis and Cairo."

If Hickrod and the Coalition for Educational Rights Under the Constitution pursue a lawsuit and score a court win. Hickrod may be remembered for much more. His actions will have set the stage for change. Perhaps his activism will leave the schoolchildren of Illinois a legacy of equity.

March 1990/Illinois Issues/17

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