KEWANEE — Education in Illinois is at a crossroads. Schools are being short-changed on state aid, required to comply with a long list of unfunded mandates, and are now being ordered to administer what they feel are unrealistic, costly and time-consuming tests.
These and other issues were addressed Wednesday night at a legislative forum and overview of Vision 20/20, a plan for the future of education in Illinois developed by educators from across the state.
The forum, held in Petersen Auditorium at Kewanee High School, featured a panel of six state legislators who represent all or parts of Henry, Bureau and Stark counties. The program was sponsored by the Regional Office of Education of Bureau, Henry and Stark Counties, which includes 24 school districts from Colona to Spring Valley and Annawan to Wyoming.
Addressing four questions they were sent in advance were three state senators, Darin LaHood (R-Dunlap), Neil Anderson (R-East Moline), and Sue Rezin (R-Peru), and three state representatives, David Leitch (R-Peoria), Frank Mautino (D-Spring Valley), and Don Moffitt (R-Gilson). Kewanee School Superintendent Chris Sullens described the gathering as “historical” in his welcome.
In general, the group felt school funding will stabilize only if Illinois’ economy is revitalized and the state’s mountain of debt reduced. The loss of revenue due to the decrease of the state income tax from 5 to a 3.75 percent this year has to be regained through economic growth.
They also saw promise in a new administration in the governor’s office and the team newly-elected Gov. Bruce Rauner has put in place. Some also felt the new bipartisan arrangement in Springfield, with a Republican governor and both houses of the General Assembly with Democratic majorities could be a good thing for education. It was pointed out Rauner has indicated he wants to see changes in the funding of Illinois education
“Sparks flew” from the legislators, and the large audience of mostly teachers, school board members, administrators and parents, applauded when the legislators bore down on Common Core and PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) tests.
The main flaw, as they saw it, was the required assessments, which most teachers and administrators see as cumbersome and unreasonable, were dictated by the Illinois State Board of Education and did not go through the legislative process. If they had, hearings would have been held and input sought from educators.
The lawmakers said there is a possibility that Common Core and PARCC testing, which begins in March, may be delayed or even done away with, but not this year.
It was also pointed out that PARCC testing, which takes third- through 12th-graders 10 to 12 hours over a two-week period, is required to be done online, a problem for some rural districts which do not have access to high-speed Internet service.
It was felt an option allowing the tests to be taken on paper should be available. The legislators also felt the state should make funding available to small, rural districts for installation of high speed Internet service, not only for testing purposes, but also to offer access to enhanced educational programs.
The legislators also felt control needs to be returned to local school boards and administrators and removed from bureaucratic regulatory state and federal agencies who are out of touch.
Regional Superintendent Angela Zarvell said 255 people were counted in the audience, prompting Rezin to say when she pulled into the parking lot she thought there was also a basketball game at the high school. All six legislators said they were impressed with the turnout, information on Vision 20/20, and urged educators to put some of their points into the form of bills which could be considered in Springfield.
“Be careful what you wish for,” said Scott Kuffel, Geneseo school superintendent and moderator of the forum. Kuffel, a Kewanee native, is also president of the Illinois Association of School Administrators.
Stark County School Superintendent Jerry Klooster, a member of the task force that helped develop Vision 20/20 in 2012, said the goals of the group include developing a balanced state assessment system; making it easier for teachers from out-of-state to get a license to teach in Illinois; recognize that not all districts are the same, have varied resources and expectations, and differentiated accountability; and adequate funding of education based on local factors rather than “one size fits all.”
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