By MICHAEL D. KLEMENS
Edgar on education
This is the fourth interview in our scheduled series with the gubernatorial candidates. Only Republican candidate Jim Edgar appears in this article because Democratic nominee Neil F. Hartigan said he could not go through with the interview that had been scheduled for September 14. "At the time of the interview the campaign had not yet released its education position paper,'' William Filan, Hartigan 's campaign manager said. The Edgar interview was done on September 6 in Springfield.
A poll done in August for the Coalition for Consumer Rights found that the biggest worry facing Illinois citizens was the quality of education that children are receiving in the public schools. Education is on the political agenda, and it is no coincidence that George Bush declared that he would be the "education president." Education is the top priority of Republican gubernatorial nominee Jim Edgar. "The next governor must commit himself to making this state's education system second to none in this nation," Edgar told the Illinois Association of School Boards when he announced his education plan in May.
Implicit in the public concern over schools is the question of graduates who cannot read or perform basic math and are geographically illiterate. Some citizens see schools spending ever more money but producing graduates ever more poorly prepared. Others hear lots of talk about education but little resolve when it comes to spending money.
Edgar says that both sides are right to a degree. Money itself will not guarantee better schools, but without money schools cannot do the job. Illinois is marked by extremes, Edgar says. In suburban districts citizens question frills — be they swimming pools or exotic courses. In rural districts schools struggle to find the money to attract good teachers and keep the school running.
"I think we have to recognize that we basically have three different school systems," Edgar says. He divides schools into Chicago, suburban and downstate. Chicago, Edgar says, has its unique problems. Suburban school districts generally have few money problems but are beginning to see social problems with drugs and gangs. Finally, Edgar says that downstate districts are a mixed bag, but many lack resources to run schools.
Different schools with different problems make measurement of school performance problematic. "Accountability" is the new buzz word both in government and in education. "When we're talking about trying to decide if we're making progress, we've got to look at those three different categories," Edgar explains.
Edgar says that measuring how well a school is doing presents a pair of distinct problems. First, what do you use as a measure? Tests have been the traditional yardstick, but Edgar says that he would de-emphasize them. He says that there are dangers that educators will be more concerned about the test than what is being taught. "I think we've got to be extremely careful that we don't decide the way we tell this is just by test score, and that's the only criteria. If we do that, I think we'll miss an opportunity to improve our schools and perhaps set up a mechanism that's going to give us a false impression."
Edgar says tests must be retained but that other measures be used to decide how well those graduates do in the job market or in college. And Edgar believes there is a role for those outside of education in making those evaluations. He would include parents, business leaders and lawmakers in setting the standards. Indicators suggested by Edgar include program offerings, achievement scores, percentage of students graduating, and the extent of parental involvement.
The second problem with measuring a school's progress is making comparisons. Edgar says that because of differences in wealth, comparisons between rich and poor districts are unfair. Edgar says that perhaps the fairest comparison comes from looking at where a school was a year before and asking the questions: "Are you making progress? Are you making enough progress?"
Having developed some measure of performance, the question becomes how to use the measures. In cases where schools are meeting standards, Edgar says that he would ease state oversight. He believes that will be an incentive for educators, who have expressed frustrations with the number and complexity of state mandates. And he thinks that rewarding schools with recognition could be valuable. "I think people get very excited when their school gets singled out as being one of the best." He says financial rewards would also be a possibility but is less enthusiastic about that option because of its cost.
Schools that arc performing badly provide a different dilemma. First, Edgar believes the state should increase its oversight for those districts: "I think the state has a responsibility to step in and start saying 'Okay, you need to do XYZ because you're
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just not meeting the necessary standards." But Edgar is reluctant to give the State Board of Education increased authority to step into a school district, saying he believes in local control, He says he would first have to see what powers the state board has. Edgar is similarly reluctant to take money away from schools that are not performing.
Edgar thinks that government must find ways to increase parental involvement in schools. He says that over the last 30 years, more and more children are going home from school to empty houses and finding parents unable or unwilling to help them. 'The best classroom teacher in the world is not going to be successful with those kids who go home to parents who don't care or don't take the time to help them," Edgar says.
He suggests that one of the teacher ''institute" days be changed to a parent/teacher day. Edgar says that parents must be encouraged to become active in schools. Involvement could begin with social programs, he suggests. When parents refuse, he suggests recruiting volunteers, particularly senior citizens, to act as mentors for those children. "Teachers know that when parents aren't involved, it's going to make their job a lot tougher in the classroom," Edgar says.
School funding in Illinois is unevenly distributed, and the next Illinois governor will likely face a lawsuit that challenges the school aid formula as unfair to "property-wealth poor" districts. Edgar says that if the courts uphold such a challenge, it would cause severe problems for Illinois. He says that equity is one of the reasons that he supports continuation of the temporary income tax increase. "I think it would be disastrous if we lower that tax and take away that $300 million, roughly, that went to elementary and secondary schools," Edgar says. Loss of that money would increase the gap between rich and poor, make a successful legal challenge more likely and force court-ordered tax increases, Edgar says.
Edgar would close the equity gap by putting more money into the school aid formula, on one hand, and on the other, by capping local property tax growth. Edgar's pledge of no new taxes for four years, except for the extension of the surcharge, will limit new funding for the school aid formula. He says that to find money to put in the formula he might look to the local government portion of the surcharge and to reprioritization of existing spending. Edgar would at the same time slow down the growth of spending in high property-wealth districts by limiting property tax growth to 5 percent annually.
Edgar says that those two proposals would at least give Illinois an argument to make in court. Failure to extend the surcharge means trouble down the road with a lawsuit, he says. "I think that would cause havoc in this state to have the courts come in and tell us how to fund our schools," Edgar says.
Edgar's plan for education centers on continuation of the income tax surcharge set to expire June 30. He offers his early and decisive support for continuing the temporary income tax as proof of his commitment to schools. The balance of his plan is substantive but not revolutionary. Increased parental involvement, site-based management and support from the business community have all worked with success in parts of Illinois.
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