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Simon's commission blunts attack on public education 

State School News Service
By Jim Broadway
November 3, 2011

Slide number 10 warns: “… do not be fooled!”

That page of the Classrooms First Commission’s presentation on “The Illinois School District Landscape” includes a graph prepared by the conservative Cato Institute, which advocates for complete privatization of elementary and secondary education.

The graph shows public education employment doubling while student enrollment rose only about 10%, since 1970. That message is “misleading,” the slide asserts, adding that ratios of students to educators “create a more accurate picture.”

Illinois pupil/teacher ratios have remained at a constant of about 19:1 for the last 15 years. Moreover, the average teacher’s salary (in constant 2010 dollars) actually decreased by 6% from 2001 to 2010. This represents a significant saving to taxpayers.

The average public school administrator’s salary has fallen more, by 8% (in constant 2010 dollars) since 2001, but the number of administrators has increased significantly relative to student enrollments, from 253:1 in 1996 to 204:1 in 2010.

The falling students/administrators ratio is likely to be a concern of the commission when it reports to the Illinois General Assembly next year to propose “efficiencies” that can focus public education dollars more sharply on classroom instruction.

The “landscape” slide presentation is an indicator that the Classrooms First Commission led by Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon will go far beyond just the narrow issues of school district “consolidation and realignment” called for in the legislation that created it.

But it does not ignore those issues. The document spotlights facts that will likely reinforce the views of many legislators – and of Gov. Pat Quinn – that education in Illinois might be better with fewer districts:

The state has 866 districts, third most in the nation; consolidations have reduced the number by only 39 since 1995; 29 districts have fewer than 100 students; 247 have less than 500 students; and the number of administrators rose by 34% since 1996.

These factoids are bullet points for a pro-consolidation position paper.

But under Simon’s leadership the commission’s work goes to the broader question of “efficiencies” to be achieved in public education. What is involved in that concept? The gist is described in another slide presentation on “District Efficiency Research.”

The methodology generally compares districts by using “controls” for such factors as spending, student achievement and student demographics. This document describes various approaches (within a district, among districts, consolidation) to achieve efficiency.

Sharing services is emphasized. Pros and cons by district size are highlighted.

The respect Simon commands allows her to broaden the scope of the commission’s mission, but the law creating it still says it is just to recommend “the number of school districts in this state and the optimal amount of enrollment for a school district.”

The implication is that efficiencies resulting from restructuring would create more dollars that could be used “in the classroom” for student instruction. The reality, however, is that dollars “saved” will reduce the state’s funding of public education.

That’s not an argument against efficiency, just a likely effect of “success.”

The commission is to conduct its fourth – and final – public hearing this afternoon in Des Plaines. Then the commission members will meet twice more this year – on November 16 and December 5 – at ISBE headquarters in Springfield.

Its recommendations are due to the governor and legislature by July 1.

It’ll be interesting to see what the commission members come up with. There are legislators in the mix, but most members represent discrete constituencies of educators and school boards. They are in a spot; resistance to change will evoke criticism.

Someone will have to explain that 34% rise in administrator slots.

Follow-up: Previously, we reported that an old friend of Gov. Quinn’s – Jonathan Goldman – got himself appointed to the commission by virtue of having created a political action committee (Parent PAC) and purporting to “represent parents” in this venture.

Goldman apparently has been a non-participant in meetings and hearings prior to this week, so parents have not been represented. We have been informed that Simon has remedied that situation by inviting the Illinois Parent Teacher Association to join.

The IPTA, of course, is the organization that was intended as a participant when the language of HB 1216 was amended to add parents as a represented constituency. The association has 135,000 members and a century of school policy involvement.

The IPTA adds credibility to this already distinguished commission.

Legislature reconvenes: The House and Senate return to the Capitol next Tuesday for the last three days of their 2011 veto session. Education committees will meet in both chambers Tuesday afternoon.

The Senate committee will consider HB 605, which was amended last week in the House to revamp the school district “report card” system. The House unanimously passed the bill calling for a more informative card.

The House committee will consider HAM 1 to HB 603, a mandate requiring school districts to purchase “catastrophic injury” insurance for student athletes. The bill would have to reach the Senate quickly to be enacted before adjournment November 10.

Other bills include SB 1226, raising the limit on the number of students enrolled in a Chicago Public Schools program in agriculture education, and SB 634, relating to elected school trustees in a specific Cook County township.

The three-option pension “reform” of SB 512 seems likely to get a vote in the House next week, but the outcome is uncertain. Public employee unions and corporate interests have waged an expensive war on this issue. State budget stress will be a factor.

The House committee will also meet December 14 on the subject matter of: “Basic skills test, teaching standards and alternative certification and teaching assessments.”