Moline Dispatch/Rock Island Argus Editorial Board
November 7, 2011
Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon is heading a panel faced with a daunting task: wringing efficiencies out of Illinois' education system so that more of the money taxpayers spend on schools goes into the classrooms.
It is an important mission and one fraught with land mines as was shown during a hearing at Black Hawk College last week -- one of several planned by the Classrooms First Commission around the state.
Many local school district reps used the session with the lieutenant governor to declare their opposition to forced consolidation and to suggest that school districts already are operating as efficiently as they can given funding challenges of today.
"With the way the state has not funded our mandated programs, with the lack of transportation reimbursements, with the whole issue around payment to schools, I'd say we are awful darn efficient," said Ryan Grimm, superintendent of West Central School District in Biggsville.
"We don't need a commission, we don't need a task force and we don't need to be told what to do -- we're doing it."
That hardly bodes well for a revelatory wide-open look at real savings in the Illinois school system bureaucracy. Economies of scale can nearly always be found by those who are willing to look. But they won't be uncovered or implemented unless those with a vested interest in the outcome are willing to look for them.
The Simon panel is made up of educational stakeholders and includes lawmakers, a representative of the Illinois State Board of Education, teachers union leaders, school board members, principal and superintendent from Chicago, suburban, downstate and rural districts.
Whether the various elements can take an objective look at the system and shake up the status quo by finding new ways to do more with less is not yet known. But the hearing at Black Hawk wasn't particularly encouraging. Opening a discussion about what can be done shouldn't begin with what must not. Consolidation for some districts must be part of the discussion.
Illinois has some 870 school districts, the third most in the nation behind California and Texas. Is that the best way to deliver education to our kids or can some mergers and consolidations help?
But Lt. Gov. Simon wisely has not made that the No. 1 focus of the effort. Forced consolidation is a volatile issue and opposition to it shouldn't derail the effort to make real schools reforms.
She told the editorial board of The Dispatch and Rock Island Argus, "Particularly I wanted to steer away from the idea of consolidation as by itself an answer. Let's do what we can to get to more opportunity for students and greater efficiency; sometimes that's going to be consolidation, and sometimes that's going to be working together across district lines."
She's right, too, that "There is no cookie cutter approach to improving student learning and district efficiency, which is why it is so crucial to get input from as many citizens as possible from across Illinois."
We support the task force's mission and trust that rather than protecting their own turf, they are committed to providing the Legislature which created the panel with recommendations for improving Illinois schools this summer. Their results are due July 1.
We urge Illinois parents and concerned citizens to get involved in the process. Go to www.ltgov.illinois.gov or mail to Dr. Lynne Haeffele, Office of the Lt. Governor, 214 State House, Springfield, IL 62706 to submit ideas to commission members on how to best achieve the goal of improving student performance while more efficiently spending and potentially saving taxpayer dollars.
Here's your chance to tell legislators what you think schools should be doing and to put the education insiders on this panel on notice that doing nothing is no longer an option.