The most important tasks of the state are providing for K-12 education, taking care of the infrastructure and taking care of the people who do the first two. The most important job of parents is to promote their children’s well-being. One very important part of that is to make sure their K-12 is as solid as they can. To that end, the state government, parents, students and local school districts including administrators, teachers and staff must be partners. This can’t be a top down relationship. It must be collaborative. In order for the collaboration to work, each partner must have well defined roles at each stage of the student’s education. Here is what I feel the roles are and how the state can best fulfill its role.
Education starts with the students. They are the people who will need to be able to live purposeful lives after they are finished high school. They are the people who are responsible for learning. They are also the people whose role changes the most throughout their journey from Kindergarten to graduation. At all times, students must be kept safe. I think we can agree that in our schools we want children learning what they need to be a contributing member of society, not how to survive in a prison. Once safety is assured, students of all ages, abilities and backgrounds can reach their full potential. This will mean different types and amounts of resources, but each student must be equal in priority. As students age, they are able to and must be encouraged to take an increasing larger role in determining their own curriculum. This is especially true for high school students. Also as students age, they are able to and must determine how they learn best. To be able to make that decision, they must be exposed to as many pathways of learning as possible. Then, they can increasingly supplement their learning in school with studying using the pathways they know enhance their learning the most.
The group with the most impact on students’ education in the schools are teachers with the assistance of the administration and staff. The teachers collectively take these nearly toddlers and shape them into adults. It is the responsibility of the teachers to make the most accurate information available. They are tasked with using tested methods of delivering the information so that the most students will succeed. To do this, they are highly trained before they enter a classroom and must be provided with continuing education to stay current on the best methods. They also must be in a safe environment to succeed. This includes more than physical safety. They must be free to explore different methods and supplemental curricula. Also, in order to ensure that their students are retaining the information, they must be free to develop evaluation tools that meet their needs. Setting up the overall environment for education falls on the administration of the school districts. So, they must have access to the latest studies about which programs are effective for teaching students. From there, they need access to information about costs of materials, personnel and space.
With this information, the district administration can determine its needs and create as optimal a learning environment as the district can afford based on its revenue from the feds, the state and local sources. The administration must also be free to evaluate the overall learning of all students and individual students in order to determine whether the environment is indeed fostering learning and retention. There must be enough administration in the district to be able to accomplish these tasks. However, the amount and salaries of administrators must be constrained by ensuring that the bulk of resources go to actually educating the students. The administrators need to remain vigilant in order to help children learn to their ability. This includes providing a safe working environment to teachers that encourages continuing education and creativity. An environment that promotes cooperation and has procedures in place to ensure that underperforming teachers receive encouragement from administration and help from peers who are achieving consistently positive results before corrective action is taken. This includes consistent monitoring of facilities and putting an extended-year plan into place and funding it.
Next, the parents must be free to ensure that their children are being given the best opportunity to learn as possible. This means access to teachers, administration and understandable information that isn’t biased. This means being free to choose schools within a district if that doesn’t put the class size in the chosen class above the recommendations of the EBM. This means being free to chose a different district if it is shown that the home district is not educating effectively and if it doesn’t burden the transportation cost of the receiving district. This means being able to choose to limit the standardized testing time of their children if they, the parents, see that it is negatively affecting the child’s well-being. This also means being accessible to the administration and teachers. It means staying involved in the child’s education: checking homework, being aware of their test grades and open to suggestions from teachers and specialist when it comes to ensuring the child’s education and well-bieng.
All of this has been to determine what the state needs to do to ensure that the K-12 education system in Illinois is dynamic, responsive to student needs and efficient. The answer is simple: fund education equitably, connect well performing districts with under performing districts and get out of the way.
If there is one thing the state legislature should be proud of what it has done in the last 4 years it is the work of a number of its measure to research and develop its Evidence-Based Model for funding education. It was developed to both determine how much the state should be putting towards educating our K-12 youth and to get the money to the districts where it is needed most.
However, It was necessarily not intended to be used to determine how districts were to spend the money. Unfortunately, it is being used in exactly that way to justify unfunded mandates to the schools. This needs to stop. Now. Many schools are funded at less that the 60% adequacy level. The majority of schools (51.7%) are below 70% adequacy). The EBM is indeed slowly working to fix that gap. However, unfunded mandates are severely impeding progress. The state government recently mandated a minimum teacher salary of $40,000/year, continues to mandate daily physical education and other mandates that impede all districts’ administration, teachers and school boards from being able to put resources where they will be most effective. Let’s take a look at this On top of this, the state government has stymied bills that would empower parents to restrict standardized testing for their children and to select the best educational option for their children.
So, first, the state needs to sign parent choice into law. Parents need to be able to pick schools within a district based on their assessment of their children’s needs so long as the choice does not put the chosen school’s numbers above a reasonable limit set by the local school board. Parents must be able to provide their children with quality education. So, if a school district’s ability to educate students falls below a level set by the state, the state then should provide a scholarship to parents who choose to send their children to private or parochial school that is at most the value of their property tax payment.
As seen above, schools must also be free. Free to allow teachers to set their curriculum. Free to negotiate with teachers, staff and contractors to provide the best, safest environment for education that their taxpayers can afford. To this end, mandates must stop.So, the state must continue to use the EBM to equitably increase funding to schools until the state is the primary source of funding to schools. The state must eliminate all mandates that could possibly need funding to be implemented.
The state needs to reverse course. If we want our children to thrive, we need schools to thrive. This means we need to empower parents and guardians in making decisions about where their children should go to school. The state has to put parental choice that doesn’t wreck schools into law. The state must empower school districts, teachers, parents and tax payers in deciding how much money they need to effectively teach their children and how to use it. This must be done. Now. The state must fulfill its Constitutional obligation to be the primary funder of K-12 education.