chicago public schools logo

Welcome to our third and final installment of this “Confused about Chicago’s Elected School Board?” blog! If you need to get caught up, Part 1 covers the timeline of the change, history of Chicago’s school board, and background on other Illinois school board structures. Part 2 recommends Ranked Choice Voting in the 2024 CPS school board election.

Today, we will finish up with another recommendation: allowing CPS elected school board members to collect a stipend for their work. In anticipation of this blog, we sent an informal survey to our members and others across Illinois to get their perceptions about this topic and inform our own position, and we’ve embedded those findings throughout the blog. (We’ve even decided to keep the poll open so others – like you! – can add their thoughts.)

What’s the role of a school board member?

As we started thinking about equitable board representation, the concept of compensation came up early on. But the question to start with really shouldn’t be whether school board members earn a salary; the real question to start with is: what is the expectation for the job of a school board member?

The school board’s biggest jobs are hiring the superintendent, setting district policies, and adopting a budget. But what does research say about best practices for school boards? The National Association of School Board compiled research from meta-analyses, case studies of high achieving districts, and studies comparing governance of similarly-situated schools with stark differences in outcomes. They concluded that high-performing school boards do eight things:

  1. Set high expectations and define clear goals to reach them.
  2. Have strong beliefs in the ability of students to learn and of the system to teach them.
  3. Spend less time on day-to-day operations and more time on setting policies that drive achievement.
  4. Maintain collaborative relationships with the community, educators, and families.
  5. Embrace and monitor data to drive continuous improvement.
  6. Align resources to meet goals.
  7. Lead as a united team with the superintendent.
  8. Participate in team training and development.

In another intriguing National School Board Association (NSBA) report, the group surveyed its members across the country and asked how many hours they spent on school board business. More than three-quarters of them reported that they devoted between 7 – 40 hours per month to school board duties.

That’s a significant chunk of time for a middle-class parent who has to take time away from their paid job and their family to serve on the board – but it’s also not a full-time salaried job.

Stacked bar graph.

How may hours do you spend on board work in a typical month? 

More than 40 hours: 16%
25-40 hours: 24%
15-24 hours: 28%
7-14 hours: 25%
Fewer than 7 hours: 7%

N=1,192
This is a replication of the K12 Insight graph shown in the NSBA report.

Finally, we asked in our informal survey what Illinoisans thought was the appropriate role for school board members: hiring the superintendent and setting high-level goals for the district; getting involved in day-to-day district activities; or somewhere in between. Almost two-thirds want them focused on the big picture, and just over one-third chose something in between. Two percent of survey takers wanted their school board members closely involved in operations.

Pie Chart. Stand for Children Illinois.

Opinions on the role of school board members

Not involved in day-to-day decision making: 62%
Very involved in day-to-day decision making: 36%
Something between choices A and B: 2%

Why compensation?

Equitable representation. Most people can’t devote ten hours a week to an unpaid volunteer job, and those who can are unlikely to be representative of the communities they serve.

Yes, across Illinois school board members serve on boards for no compensation, and many are devoted to their districts regardless of how challenging it is to make it work with their competing responsibilities. But how many of them step down because it’s not sustainable? Ask your school board how hard it is to fit it all in – many will say it’s a tough balancing act and big sacrifice for their family.

The informal poll shows that statewide about 60% support paying school board members some amount of stipend or salary. Among Chicagoans, this is even more popular, with 73% saying they support compensation.

How much compensation?

A reasonable stipend, but not too much. (You’ll read more below about Los Angeles that moved to an elected board and recently gave itself a $125,000 salary… that’s not good for equity either, to be clear.)

That same NASB survey found 62% of its members were unpaid, but for larger school districts, paying board members is fairly common. LA’s $125,000 is the outlier… by far. Florida sets school board member salaries in statute at about $42,000… Some state laws (like CA’s and VA’s) allow compensation by law with a cap the varies based on district size, recognizing that leading a larger district takes more time. I’m particularly fond of FL’s law that sets base board member salaries by district size, tied to inflationary increases, with a caveat that it cannot be higher than the salary of a first year teacher with a Bachelor’s Degree.

To the right are some examples of amounts paid to school boards in large districts in the country.

Bar Graph. Annual School Board Member Salary

Fairfax County (2024) - a little under $50,000
Miami-Dade County (2021) - a little under $50,000
Broward County (2021) - a little under $50,000
Orange County (2021) - a little under $50,000
Hillsborough County (2021) - a little under $50,000
Rochester NY (2021) - around $25,000
Montgomery County (MD) (2023) - around $25,000
Shelby County (TN) (2020) - around $25,000
Fresno Unified (2022) - a little more than $20,000
Charlotte Mechlenburg - $20,000
Milwaukee (2022) - a little less than $20,000
San Diego Unified (2021) -  a little less than $20,000
Prince George County (MD) (2021) - a little less than $20,000
Buffalo NY (2021) - about $15,000
Montgomery County (AL) (2018) - $10,000
Clark County (2022) - a little less than $10,000
Forsyth County (GA) (2022) - a little less than $10,000

All Illinois school boards are unpaid by law, but plenty of other Illinois boards and commissions have salaries or stipends for members, such as these appointed positions, which are held by professionals and expected to be full-time jobs:

BoardSizeCompensation
(Member)
Compensation
(Chair)
Illinois Commerce Commission5$125,790$144,038
Education Labor Relations Board4$100,945$112,157
Illinois Human Rights Commission6$127,894$134,342
Illinois Labor Relations Board8$112,157$100,945
Pollution Control Board5$125,790$130,086
Prisoner Review Board10$92,305$103,037
Illinois Workers Compensation Commission10$156,253$164,066

And these appointed members, who investment significant time, but less than a full-time job:

BoardSizeCompensation
(Member)
Compensation
(Chair)
Chicago Transit Board7$25,000$25,000
Civil Service Commission5$27,212$32,676
Concealed Carry Licensing Review Board7$39,127$39,127
State Board of Elections8$40,379$62,809
Executive Ethics Commission9$40,379$40,379
FOID Card Review Board7$40,379$40,379
International Port District Board9$20,000$25,000
Illinois Liquor Control Commission7$36,598$41,825
State Mining Board6$16,821$16,821
Metra Board of Directors10$15,000$25,000
Property Tax Appeal Board5$56,079$69,538
Illinois Racing Board7$13,462$13,462
Regional Transportation Authority Board16$25,000$25,000
State Toll Highway Authority9$31,426$36,077

And these elected positions:

Board / BodySizeCompensation
(Member)
Compensation
(Chair)
Chicago City Council50Varies: Min = $115,560, Max = $142,772 
Metropolitan Water Reclamation District9$70,000$80,000
Cook County Board of Commissioners17$93,500$187,000

We asked our own polltakers to choose among a handful of salary ranges and by far, modest amounts were more popular. Seventy-seven percent of compensation-supporters think the most appropriate stipend amounts are under $40,000.

Keep up the Transparency

One more thought… before the first elections were to take place, the law required a financial entanglements report and an ISBE response report. But this is a big change and we hope the legislature will add some additional reporting requirements so we can keep shining a light on this process as Chicago shepherds in its first elected school board. We propose an interim report a year after the 2024 election that includes information like: how are the financial disentanglements going and how has that impacted the fiscal health of the district? How much staff time is being allocated to managing the new board? After the 2026 election, additional questions, such as school climate survey data, teacher retention, and academic outcomes, should be included as well.

Next Week

Next week is Veto Session, beginning October 24 and ending November 9. We could see some major action on this issue in the next month, or we could see the issue punted until spring session. In the end, it will be more important to the future of the students served by CPS to have this transition done responsibly, smoothly, equitably, and thoughtfully than to have it done quickly; we look forward to seeing what unfolds and supporting that smooth transition however we can.

chicago public schools logo

The Chicago Board of Education will undergo a dramatic transformation over the next three years as it transitions from a mayoral-appointed board of seven members, to a hybrid board of 10 elected and 11 appointed members, to a fully elected 23-member board. It’s a big change that’s coming up fast – so the clock is ticking for the legislature to finalize some pretty critical details. The legislature returns for Veto Session[1] October 24 and will have the opportunity to address some of these questions.

This blog series will feature three installments. Read last week’s post to see a summary of the law, the implementation timeline, and the history of school governance in Chicago and other Illinois districts. Our last post will look closely at school board compensation across the country, which is really deeply intertwined with another question: what is the role of a school board member? (If you have thoughts on either the compensation question or the role-of-a-school-board-member one, pop over to take our poll and share your thoughts…)

Today, we will talk about some potential pitfalls of holding a General Election without a Primary – plus a possible solution!

The Lifecycle of an Election

Most Illinois school boards are elected in non-partisan Municipal Elections. In any election held outside of the traditional November election, significantly fewer voters cast ballots. Los Angeles’s school board election was decided by 8.7% turnout. That is a prime reason why we commend the legislature for sticking with the General Election cycle for Chicago’s school board.[2] Most school board races in Illinois[3] feature all the candidates running at large to fill some number of available seats. (Or if there is a two-year term and a four-year term on the ballot, there may be two different match-ups, but still with multiple candidates running.) This often lends itself to candidates joining forces and running as a slate, which isn’t officially partisan but often falls along party lines.

But in Chicago, each subdistrict will vote for one candidate. (To be clear, this is overwhelmingly positive—carving a district into subdistricts has been ordered as part of desegregation consent decrees to increase racial representation on school boards and will likely have the impact of a more representative board for CPS.) Normally, in such a circumstance, there is some process to whittle down the number of candidates before the General Election. (Like in a House or State Senate race, where there is a partisan Primary. Or in some municipal elections, where there is a nonpartisan Primary with a run-off vote if no candidate secures over 50% of the vote.)

Petition season[4]  is already underway for other offices that are up for election in November 2024; those candidates will file their petitions between November 27 and December 4 and have a Primary election March 19. School board candidates presumably will have a later filing date for their petitions – but we will have to wait to find out when. There is also nothing in the law about a Primary, or a run-off, or ranked choice voting when it comes to Chicago’s school board election.

Unintended Consequences

Let’s say Subdistrict X is full of a strong majority of voters who support a culturally-affirming curriculum and a small minority of voters who prefer to, say, ban high-quality, thought-provoking books (like Just Mercy – I’m looking at you, Yorkville [Yorkville School District Y115 board removes book from high school English course – Shaw Local] 😠!). If twelve candidates file petitions and eleven reflect the views of the district, they might split the vote such that the one bigot ends up with a plurality of the vote and weasels their way onto the board.

Let’s look at one notorious example from Illinois: the 2010 Lieutenant Governor Democratic Primary Election. This is the fiasco that led to lasting change; instead of voting for a Lt. Governor nominee in the Primary, now the nominee for Governor selects their own running mate. In the 2010 primary election, six candidates ran for Lt. Governor on the Democratic primary ballot: four were higher profile candidates than the others and the media focused a lot of their candidacies. But there was hardly any vetting of a relatively obscure candidate: Scott Lee Cohen. Pawnbroker and relative unknown Cohen spent a large sum of his own money sending direct mail about job fairs he had hosted and pulled off a win with 26% of the total vote – a slim plurality over the next leading candidate’s 23%. Certainly no one secured a majority of the voters’ support. Only then did the public and media start to vet Cohen, looking into his background and learning about a history of domestic violence, including holding a knife to an ex-girlfriend’s throat.

If there was a run-off, voters would have an opportunity to look at the top two candidates and decide which was better suited for the job. One of them would have earned a majority of voters’ support. Or if this was a race that would be considered on its own merit in the General Election, voters would have chosen between Cohen and Republican Lt. Governor candidate; instead, the Lt. Governor nominee would be added to the Governor nominee’s slate.

The Cohen example is not the only one; on down-ballot races, Illinois is no stranger to one candidate’s camp deliberately recruiting others into a crowded field with similar (or identical) names, ethnicity, or gender as a strategy to divide a legitimate opponent’s votes. And in this first school board election, without any malicious intent or political games, it is entirely possible that numerous candidates get on the ballot, voters divide their votes among several candidates who reflect the demographics and values of the subdistrict, and an outlier candidate who is not representative of the district wins the race with a plurality of the vote, far short of the majority.

Ranked-Choice Voting

With technological advancements in voting, ranked-choice voting has become less of an election judge’s nightmare and more of a realistic tool to empower voters. It is done in a growing number of cities for local elections, including Evanston, IL as one of the newest additions to the list. “Instant runoff voting,” “ranked choice voting,” “preferential voting” in Australia, and “alternative voting” in the UK are generally used interchangeably. There are different ways to approach it, but the goal is for one candidate to reach 50% +1 of the vote.

We like the idea of voters ranking candidates in their order of preference. If no candidate has 50% of the vote, the last choice candidate is eliminated and the #2 choice of the ballots who ranked that candidate #1 are added in next. Then the next-lowest vote-getter is eliminated with their voters next choice added in, repeated until one candidate has a 50% +1 majority. If there is a tie for last place, the tie breaker could be which candidate has the fewest #1 votes.

One downside is that this is more complex for the average voter than simply choosing one candidate from the list. Voters may never have heard of some candidate on a very long list. If a candidate just ranks their first choice and leaves the rest blank, it is important for that one vote to still count. It could also make sense to go with a “top five” or “top three” approach, where candidates choose their top choices only. After the first round of tallying, only the top five (or three) remain for the counting, with all others’ voters automatically reallocated to the voter’s top choice among those five (or three).

Cambridge, MA is the longest running experiment with ranked voting, where voters have adopted it for school boards and city council racers since 1941. Maine and Alaska use ranked choice voting in their Congressional races. Five states used it for the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries. New York’s 2021 Mayoral Primaries employed ranked-choice voting, following a 2019 ballot initiative allowing voters to rank up to five candidates. Other places have used a ranked choice approach in local elections: Seattle, Salt Lake City, San Francisco, Oakland, Santa Fe, Minneapolis, and dozens of other municipalities. Sarasota, FL adopted it in 2007, but never had technology to enact it until recently; now that technology is available, the state of FL has banned it statewide. North Carolina also had ranked-choice voting, but has since repealed it.

The Illinois legislature created a Ranked-Choice and Voting Systems Task Force to study various voting methodologies and issue a report by March 1, 2024. It appears that eight of twenty appointments have been made.

Reminder!

You have until Friday to complete this survey on school board compensation! Please help us reach a critical mass.


[1] “Veto session” is a short window of time in the fall when the legislature reconvenes for the purpose of taking action on bills the Governor has vetoed, though they often take up other time-sensitive matters as well.

[2] Stand supported a bill years ago to move all school board elections to the General Election cycle. While we see this as good for transparency and community engagement, apparently change is hard. It never went anywhere despite bipartisan support.

[3] With the exception of nine other districts that divide into subdistricts, like the new CPS board; at least 17 that carve out some portion of seats for a specific county(ies); and one (North Chicago) that is transitioning away from its State-appointed oversight board.

[4] This is a labor-intensive process that I never fully appreciated until I volunteered help a candidate collect signatures. To appear on the ballot, candidates and their volunteers circulate petitions that are drafted precisely as required by law, with each page signed by the person who collected the signatures and then officially notarized. Often, lawyers who specialize in this get involved to make sure everything has been done precisely as required by law, including binding together the pages properly. The point is: this isn’t like a Change.org petition that an inexperienced candidate could throw together on a whim.

chicago public schools logo

The Chicago Board of Education will undergo a dramatic transformation over the next three years as it transitions from a mayoral-appointed board of seven members, to a hybrid board of 10 elected and 11 appointed members, to a fully elected 23-member board. It’s a big change that’s coming up fast – so the clock is ticking for the legislature to finalize some pretty critical details. On Tuesday, the legislature began another round of listening sessions for input on the school board map. The second (and last, as far as we know) hearing is October 12[1]; then the legislature returns for Veto Session[2] October 24 and will have the opportunity to address some of these questions.

This blog series will feature three installments. Today’s post summarizes the law, the implementation timeline, and the history of school governance in Chicago and other Illinois districts. Next week, we will dig into elections – and some of the potential ramifications of skipping the Primary process. And finally, we will close with a blog that looks closely at school board compensation across the country, which is really deeply intertwined with another question: what is the role of a school board member? (If you have thoughts on either the compensation question or the role-of-a-school-board-member one, pop over to take our poll and share your thoughts…)

Summary of the Law

 In 2021, SB 2908 (Martwick/Ramirez) passed, shepherding in Chicago’s new school board structure. At the November 5, 2024 general election, ten school board members will be elected to four-year terms, with one member from each of ten subdistricts. Elections will be nonpartisan. By December 16, 2024, the mayor will name ten appointed members – one from each subdistrict – to serve two-year terms beginning January 15, 2025. The board president will be appointed during the hybrid period and elected Citywide in 2026.

In the 2026 general election, a board will presumably be elected from each of twenty subdistricts – though the law is somewhat ambiguous about how the ten districts become twenty. (Will the ten districts be split in half to make twenty total or will a different map be drawn? Since the legislature and advocacy groups have so far only released draft maps of twenty districts, perhaps the twenty will be paired up to become ten?)

“From January 15, 2025 to January 14, 2027, each district shall be represented by one elected member and one appointed member. After January 15, 2027, each district shall be represented by one elected member.”

105 ILCS 5/34-3

A trailer bill was enacted after the initial legislation passed to make several changes, including explicitly banning board members from receiving compensation and removing the requirement that mayoral appointees receive City Council approval. The General Assembly extended the date by which subdistricts needed to be drawn when they failed to reach consensus by the initial deadline of July 1, 2023. State law now requires the legislature to draw the subdistrict map by April 1, 2024,[3] though we expect this issue to arise during the upcoming Veto session.

Candidates for the board cannot be employed by or hold significant contracts with the school district. Members must collect 250 valid petition signatures to get on the ballot, though the timeline for submitting those signatures is not specified. The board president must collect 2,500 signatures.

There are questions that have not been addressed in the law to date; perhaps the mapping legislation will also provide answers to some of these open questions. For example, when are petitions due? What’s the alternative to a primary that would safeguard against an extremist candidate winning with a fraction of the vote in an extremely crowded field? Are there are campaign contribution limits that should be added?

Elected School Board Timeline. Graph paper background.

2021
Jul 29 - Elected school board law enacted
Dec 17 - Trailer bill enacted
2022
Oct 22 - Financial entanglements report
Spring - Public listening sessions RE: map
May 26 - Bill passed to extend timeline for drawing maps
2023
Jul 1 - ISBE response to financial entanglements report
2024
Apr 1 - Statutory deadline for legislature to draw maps
? - Petition deadlines remain unknown
Nov 5 - Ten members elected
Dec 16 - Mayor names ten appointed members and board president
2025
Jan 15 - Hybrid board is seated
2026
? - Petition deadlines remain unknown
Nov 3 - Twenty members elected to subdistricts + one citywide board president
2027
Jan 15 - Fully elected board is seated

Stand for Children Illinois logo. Three silhouettes of adults standing behind the silhouette of a child reaching their hand to the sky on a cyan background

History of CPS School Governance

Chicago has a long history of innovative governance initiatives, amid a long history of perennial school finance crises, which were often solved with short-term funding band-aids that inevitably caused the cycle to continue. If you want to skip this section, this Chicago Sun-Times cartoon by Jack Higgins on October 20, 1993 provides a concise summary:

Cartoon by Higgins titled Crossroads in the School Crisis. Three men labeled "school board," "union," and "legis" are stuck in a trench that is shaped like a figure 8.

If you’re still reading along with us, let’s go back to 1980… CPS relied on short-term borrowing to make payroll, but when investors learned that the district was spending from its debt service fund, there were zero bids on CPS’s attempt to issue more bonds. The legislature intervened, creating a School Finance Authority to oversee CPS budgets, enabling CPS to issue short-term bonds, and diverting an existing 50-cent tax levy to repay them. The School Finance Authority (SFA) meant that after 1980, schools could be shut down either by the SFA failing to balance the budget or by a union strike.

A 19-day strike in 1987 (which was the eighth strike since 1970) resulted in a groundswell of parent activism, with vocal community members coalescing around finding a long-term solution.

This movement led to a historic governance change in 1988: the creation of Local School Councils (LSCs). LSCs are school-based governance councils consisting of teachers, parents, community members, and other school staff who are elected to their seats. Their major responsibilities were hiring the school principal and allocating school-level discretionary funds, although legislation later removed this decision-making power from underperforming schools. This was the largest decentralization effort in any school district in the country.

The LSC legislation also created a nominating commission process, where 23 parent councils across the city would nominate board members for the mayor to choose from for the seats on the Chicago Board of Education. LSC members take required hours of training and earn no salary. Title One funds that the district received were transferred to LSCs for their members to determine locally how that funding would be spent – a good move toward school-level funding equity, but a $260 million hole in the district’s budget.

In 1993, another crisis struck: the SFA ruled the budget unbalanced. A series of short-term court interventions kept schools open, but that was not a sustainable solution. The legislature stepped in and allowed CPS to issue two years of bonds, which would be paid back through freezing the Title One money that flowed to LSCs and diverting $110 million from the pension levy.

When those two years ended, the next fiscal cliff set in and it was time for another state intervention. But unlike the others in recent memory, this time the Republicans held the Governor’s Office and a majority in the State House and Senate. The 1995 shift in CPS governance brought a mayoral-appointed reform board of trustees of five members, which would be replaced by a seven-member mayoral-appointed school board in 1999. This posed an unusual dichotomy: highly decentralized governance at the school level with LSCs and highly centralized power at the district level. The 1995 reform law included many other provisions that gave the district unprecedented authority to maximize budget flexibility and, in theory, get the cycle of budget crises under control. In addition to the school board composition changes, the bill collapsed multiple tax levies into two streamlined pots, allocated state funding through unrestricted block grants, and narrowed the issues subject to collective bargaining. (Since then, the General Assembly has added back the pension tax levy as a separate funding stream, ended the Chicago Block Grant for most state grants, and put items back on the collective bargaining table.)

The next major shift in CPS board governance is scheduled to take place in 2025 when the 21-member hybrid board is seated, with 10 elected members and 11 appointees. In 2027, the fully elected 21-member board will take over governance.

School Governance in Other Illinois Districts

No other school district in Illinois has either LSC structures or a mayor-appointed school board. Nearly every other district has seven unpaid[4] school board members elected districtwide (such that all districts voters vote for several candidates from among whoever runs for school board). A handful of Illinois school districts elect their board members from among subdistricts, where the school district is mapped into seven areas and voters from within each elect their own board member who lives in that subdistrict. We found nine Illinois school districts that elect board members through subdistricts:

  • Rockford SD 205
  • Springfield SD 186
  • Peoria SD 150
  • Urbana SD 61
  • Crete-Monee 201U
  • CHSD 218 (SW suburbs)
  • North Mac CUSD 34
  • Bureau Valley CUSD 340
  • W. Carroll CUSD 314

Several of these were mandated by a consent decree as a measure to encourage boards’ demographics to reflect the population of the district. We also found approximately twenty districts that allocate a certain number of seats to candidates in one county and another in remaining counties.[5] One district – North Chicago SD 187 – has remained under an ISBE-appointed independent authority since 2012, but has begun the process of transitioning to an elected school board, with a hybrid board beginning in 2025 and a fully-elected, seven-member board in 2027.

We’ll share Part 2 next week, where we’ll get into Election issues. If you have thoughts on school board member compensation, please head here to take a quick survey.


[1] Individuals who wish to provide comments can sign up for the October 3 or October 12 hearings.

[2] “Veto session” is a short window of time in the fall when the legislature reconvenes for the purpose of taking action on bills the Governor has vetoed, though they often take up other time-sensitive matters as well.

[3] SB 2123 (Morrison/Stuart) August 4, 2023 PA 103-0467

[4] State law prohibits school board members from being compensated.

[5] These districts include: Bloomington, Edwardsville, Belvidere, Charleston, Sterling, Manteno, Hoopeston, Mendon, LeRoy, Griggsville-Perry, Warsaw, Southeastern, Hiawatha, Hartsburg-Emdon, Murphy, and Ramsey.

Father reading to his son

Download this column as a PDF

Me too. Let me walk you through my journey to better understand this complicated topic, featuring a heavy dose of honesty, the Dunning-Kruger Effect, and a debt of gratitude to the many kind souls I’ve met along the ride who pour their hearts into literacy work every day.

This is the Dunning-Kruger Effect:

Early in my professional life, when I was a legislative staffer diving into lots of topics that were new to me, I remember having a revelation that the more I learned about a subject, the more I realized how much I still didn’t know. Over a decade later, I discovered that this phenomenon has a name: the Dunning-Kruger Effect! My journey to learn about literacy instruction is following this trajectory, from knowing nothing to progressing along the “slope of enlightenment.”

But let’s go back in time about two years. Lots of states have undertaken literacy policy work, but Illinois hasn’t made any big, splashy literacy reforms. Our literacy rates, like literacy rates nationally, are frighteningly low. (One-third of fourth graders don’t meet “basic” reading standards.) “Someone should do something about that,” I thought. But I’m not a practitioner and this is so deeply embedded in pedagogy. It was around this time that a friend of a friend connected me to a local teacher who was having similar thoughts from the opposite direction (i.e., “I know the practice, but I don’t know policy and advocacy.” Here she is, talking about reading instruction in a TedX Talk.)

There is clearly a problem here:

  1. One-third of fourth graders don’t meet “basic” reading standards. Two-thirds don’t meet “proficient” standards. The picture looks about like that whether you consider national or State assessments. Within that statistic, there are deep inequities. A strong majority of incarcerated adults and court-involved youth are struggling readers.
  2. Tutoring is a booming business, but it’s cost prohibitive for most students. If a family can afford it, they will shell out tens of thousands of dollars to get their kid the literacy instruction they need. It is a tremendous inequity.
  3. Lots of other states have taken action. Some are getting great results. Some don’t seem to be moving the needle. But policymakers in these states have said enough is enough and prioritized literacy on their policy agenda.

I went “down the rabbit hole.” First, I binged the Emily Hanford documentary series, a convenient entryway into the literacy conversation. I signed up to the “Science of Reading—What I Should Have Learned in College” national and Illinois Facebook pages. I studied findings of the 2000 National Reading Panel report, and the 2006 National Literacy Panel Report for Language Minority Children and Youth. My podcast queue is heavily literacy-focused, as are most of the personal conversations with whomever I cross paths.

Around the same time as my immersion in the world of literacy, the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus was hard at work negotiating several reform pillars, including education, under the leadership of State Sen. Kimberly Lightford (D—Maywood). Rep. Rita Mayfield (D—Waukegan) had filed an early literacy bill for years, and she was committed to seeing it through. It was in the ILBC bill at one point, but it came out so that it could be worked on further. After that, we started networking more, finding lots of committed parents and advocates, introducing folks to each other, and jointly establishing the Illinois Early Literacy Coalition.

At this point in my journey, here were my top three takeaways:

  1. Reading is not natural. It literally re-wires our brains as we make connections between the sounds in language, to the letters on a page, to meaning of the text. Some children make the inferences they need to figure it out no matter how they are taught, but most need direct, explicit instruction to “crack the code.”
  2. Phonemic awareness gets shortchanged, and phonics is often added as a side dish that isn’t well integrated with the rest of the lesson. The five pillars of reading are phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary development, and comprehension.
  3. Emerging readers should decode words while reading books with phonics patterns they have learned, rather than being encouraged to figure out the words from looking at pictures or memorizing repetitive text.

I was watching my then-kindergartener go through remote schooling, where his phenomenal teachers delivered instruction from a poorly rated curriculum that “cues” students to look at the pictures in their books when they come to an unknown word. (With the type of books they use, it’s really the only option, since most kindergarteners haven’t learned the phonics patterns to decode “scientist,” or “elephant,” or “porcupine.” These books typically feature a repetitive text pattern on every page, like “I went to the playground and played on the [insert equipment here],” and a picture that hints at that type of playground equipment. More advanced versions might have something different on the last page, like “I love going to the playground.”) I noticed his struggle to remember letters and their sounds, and his adorable language quirks, like saying “tremote” instead of remote, “pagic” instead of package, and “garjib” instead of garbage. This was the first time it occurred to me: he is one of the kids for whom explicit and systematic phonics and phonemic awareness instruction will be absolutely critical.

When I was figuratively at the top of the first peak (“Mt. Stupid”), I think my biggest misconception was that there are two clearcut “sides” to this debate. A term of the 1990s, the “Reading Wars” still seemed to be going strong – with one segment of the population advocating for structured literacy and the other for balanced literacy. (As it turns out, neither is a silver bullet, both can be interpreted in multiple ways, and both actually support a lot of the same principles.) So came my fall from Mt. Stupid into the Valley of Despair.

I thought, “Explicit, systematic phonics instruction is everything.” It’s super important, but… Here’s what I oversimplified:

  1. It’s not more important than other elements (fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension), and there are more elements to throw into the mix, like oral language development and writing.
  2. Different students will need different dosages of instruction of these elements. Some might not need much phonics, others will need many repetitions of the phonics patterns they learn, and all should receive the instruction that meets their needs. Students learning English will need a greater focus on oral language development, while students with dyslexia will need a heavy focus on phonemic awareness and phonics.
  3. Phonics is not an end destination. It is like training wheels. The goal is for word recognition to become so automatic that all of a reader’s attention can be focused on comprehension and analysis.
  4. Integration of the elements is important, so kids learn phonics patterns, have opportunities to re-integrate those skill into meaningful content, and apply those phonics skills when they read.
  5. Decoding should be the first step to tackling unknown words, but looking at context clues after word identification can support comprehension. The “three-cueing” approach suggests that multiple, equally good strategies can help students read an unknown word. (What word would make sense? Does it sound right? Does it look right?) Relying on pictures and context as a primary way to identify a word defies what we know about how the brain learns to read. But these clues can be helpful to understand at the word level (vocabulary) and at the text level (comprehension).

Springfield is lucky to have a Children’s Dyslexia Center that provides an annual, free structured literacy training derived from Orton-Gillingham. I signed up. It’s not a small commitment; this will mean tutoring 100 hours over the year in addition to the classes and homework. But this issue has become so professionally and personally relevant, it makes absolute sense for me carve out the time for this. (I’m pretty close! I’ve got about 10 hours to go.)

People who have dedicated their lives to studying how children learn to read are still somewhere on that slope of enlightenment. There’s no end to it. Experts who seem aligned with each other and have decades of experience between them still get into heated debates about nuances of specific instructional methods. The research will keep going, and the curriculum will keep developing, and we will refine our beliefs about what works best over and over again for as long as we stay committed to this subject. It’s OK that we don’t have all the answers.

But it’s not OK to ignore this issue any longer. There are policies that Illinois should enact to improve equitable access to evidence-based, comprehensive literacy instruction for all students. None of them are silver bullets. None of them are easy. None of us individually have the only recipe for a policy solution.

After the Right to Read Act (SB 3900 (Lightford/Mayfield)) sparked interest from many groups, the State Board of Education (ISBE) announced that it would sponsor a convening of state, local, and national experts to dig into literacy best practices and policies for Illinois. This is exactly the sort of action we should be looking for. ISBE will be the agency to implement whatever changes are enacted, so it makes perfect sense that it will lead the conversation and assume ownership of this important issue. In fact, one of the things I have discovered is that ISBE has already adopted some pretty great literacy standards!

I am hopeful to see comprehensive and inclusive conversations about this going forward, with an eye toward adopting a literacy plan for the state that can truly support Illinois children – no matter where they live – to develop foundations to become strong readers.

P.S. – If you like puzzles, literacy, and the Illinois legislature, try your hand at this crossword we created for Stand’s newsletter. The more people solve these things, the more I can justify continuing to make them!

Download this column as a PDF.

You could figuratively say we “won the lottery” when we got the COVID shot, an unprecedented marvel of science that took just a year to go from discovering a deadly new disease to testing and securing emergency authorization for a vaccine to guard against it. And here we are, living in the country with the most innovative scientists who miraculously developed these vaccines, which we are all privileged to have access to now.

Every Monday from July 12 – August 16, three vaccinated Illinoisans can also literally say they won the lottery. If you were vaccinated in Illinois, you’re automatically in the running for the prize. (And if you aren’t vaccinated, hurry! There are regional drawings today, August 12, with the last drawing coming on August 26, when two grand prize winners will win $1 million each.) Even vaccinated Illinois youth have a chance to win $150,000 scholarships throughout the summer.

This got me thinking about an age-old question that comes up all the time: “Wasn’t the lottery supposed to fund public education?” The short answer: It does, but it’s not nearly enough money. The Illinois Lottery generates about $700 million each year that goes to the Common School Fund. That $700 million is a lot of money but still only a drop in the bucket compared to how much is needed to fully fund public education. The Illinois State Board of Education’s general funds budget is about $9 billion. And that doesn’t even include the additional billions in early childhood expenses that are appropriated through other agencies, higher education costs, or teacher pensions. And of course, keep in mind that none of these things are fully funded at their current appropriation level.

But, of course, there’s a longer answer, too. When the lottery was created in 1974, there was plenty of debate on whether the proceeds should go to education, but in the end, they went to the General Revenue Fund and were allocated for regional public transit. That changed in 1985, when the legislature passed a bill re-directing lottery receipts to the Common School Fund. However, that did not directly lead to an increase in education funding. In the words of the sponsor from floor debate (all emphasis added by me):

“…we will not be adding one penny more necessarily, but it is just the intent of what we…all thought originally might be done, that we will put all of the money in the Common School Fund. As the bill began its process through the legislature years ago, that’s what the public was told and that’s what we will do, but it will not increase the money per se.”

Here’s an opponent speaking up on floor debate:

“…after you pass this bill and you come back here in a couple years, and you begin to get comments from those same constituents at the meeting who say to you, hey, you promised us lottery money, you passed it and we still didn’t get it…. It’s a charade.”

And another floor comment:

“I’m going to support this proposition because if nothing else the public will feel better that they know that these funds are supposedly going to education, but we in the legislature know better, that in fact there’s going to be more bureaucracy, there’s going to be more accounting practices and it’s going to cost the State more than it takes in.”

(I seriously could lose days just reading old floor transcripts… fascinating stuff!)

When I was a lowly budget analyst on the Illinois Senate staff, one of the most basic things we learned when analyzing an appropriation is to note which type of funding it uses:

  • Federal Funds. From the perspective of the State, federal funds are great! We appropriate them in the budget so we can spend them, but the State doesn’t have much discretion over how much we get or how we spend it.
  • Other State Funds. There are about a bazillion “funds” that exist for various dedicated purposes. These are things like licensing fees that go into a fund that pays administrative costs for – you guessed it! – licensing. Or gas taxes that go to the Road Fund. Most “fees” end up in some “other” State fund. When the budget comes together, the legislature might look at whether there are fund balances in any of these accounts to “sweep” into General Funds, but other than that, there’s not a lot of flexibility over where they go.
  • General Funds. Now THIS is the big one. This is the part of the budget that has a lot of discretion in how it’s spent (and on which I spent most of my time analyzing a decade ago). “General Funds” include the General Revenue Fund, the Common School Fund, and the Education Assistance Fund. Individual and corporate income taxes, sales taxes, and lottery proceeds are the sources of General Funds.

Maybe that’s TMI. But here’s the thing: if we really, really wanted to be 100% sure that lottery proceeds supplemented education funding on top of what was already going there, wouldn’t we categorize it as an “Other State Funds?” That way, any increase in lottery proceeds would be in addition to whatever other General Funds increase was appropriated. The lottery does go the Common Schools Fund and the Common Schools Fund does go to education, but it isn’t directly tied.

Things got even more complicated in 2009. As a part of the capital bill that year, the General Assembly outsourced management of the lottery to a private vendor and authorized internet ticket sales. The hope was that the private vendor would significantly increase lottery receipts to help fund capital projects. The Common Schools Fund would continue to receive the same lottery funds it got in 2009, plus inflation. Any amounts over that would go toward capital. This protected the lottery’s funding for education, but also created even more disconnect between lottery sales and education funding levels.

The bottom line, in my opinion, is that even though the lottery’s tie to the Common School Fund wasn’t intended to bring more funding for schools, that $700 million would have to come from somewhere if the lottery didn’t exist. But when you buy a lottery ticket, you might actually be paying for bonds for capital projects.

Remember, August 26 is the last drawing for the COVID vaccine lottery. If you want a chance at $1 million, make sure you get that vaccine! And if you don’t literally win the lottery, you still win because you’re inoculated against COVID and you’ve done your part to stop community spread, keep schools open, and stay healthy.

Download this column as a PDF.

UPDATE: Changes related to this issue have been included in SB 2017, the Budget Implementation Bill that recently passed both houses of the Illinois legislature. The teacher pension provisions of that measure include:

  • Changing the calculation of Final Average Salary to the highest four of the last 10 years, rather than requiring those years to be consecutive. (For “Tier One” teachers (that is, those who started teaching after 2010 and are subject to a lower level of pension benefits already), this would change to the highest eight in 10 years, rather than requiring those years to be consecutive.)
  • Excluding from the 6% cap salary increases incurred as a result of working an overload the year after an emergency declaration. This fixes an unintended consequence that would penalize districts when, for instance, a teacher that always teaches summer school was unable to mid-COVID and now that summer school has been re-added, the salary increase exceeds the 6% cap.
  • Excluding from the 6% cap salary increases resulting from increasing the amount of instructional time beyond the base year of 2019-2020.

Illinois schools are getting a lot of federal COVID-19 recovery funds. That’s good because among the remote learning expenses, learning loss investments, and costs to safely re-open, Illinois schools have a boatload of new expenses. When all is said and done, Illinois schools will have gotten nearly $8 billion in federal funds through 2024 for COVID recovery through three recovery packages enacted that allocated funding to the Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief (ESSER) fund.

Most of those funds flow directly to school districts through the Title I formula, which is based on student poverty.

A quick intro to how teacher pensions are funded

The Teachers’ Retirement System (TRS) is the pension system for public school teachers and administrators outside of Chicago. Generally, the State of Illinois pays the employer costs of teacher pensions, even though the teachers are actually employed by their local school districts. Those employer costs include the normal cost (that is, the cost to keep up with current pension obligations without paying off or stacking up any debt) and the unfunded liability (which is the large amount of debt that has accrued from many previous years when the State failed to pay the normal cost).

There are some exceptions to this, requiring school districts to pay:

  • A small employer contribution of 0.58% of payroll for all employees covered by TRS.
  • The normal cost rate for employees paid with federal funding.
  • The amount of each pension attributable to raises over 6% in the final years of salary or salary higher than the Governor’s.

Everything in this blog relates to TRS-covered teachers and their school districts. In other words, it’s not relevant for Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and their teachers. Since CPS pays for its own teacher pensions, it doesn’t have the same kind of disconnect that other school districts and the State face between who spends the money and who pays the bill.

Now let’s look at a couple of the ways these exceptions get a little complicated in practice. (There are complexities even under normal circumstances, but the infusion of federal funds has amplified the impact.) 

The TRS Surcharge

School districts will be on the hook for paying pension normal costs associated with the federal funding they choose to spend on teacher and administrator salaries. If they used state or local money to pay those salaries, they would only pay 0.58% of salary to TRS. But since they are using federal funding, they have to pay 10% of salary to TRS. It could be worse: four years ago, districts paid the full unfunded liability rate for salaries of federally-funded teachers – a whopping 45%.

Four years ago, we wrote “An Education Funding No-Brainer” about this issue. Because federal funds are heavily directed toward areas of high poverty and to fund special education, the State was disproportionately using funding designated for our most vulnerable children to pay down pension debt. HB 656 was enacted in 2017, bringing the federal funds rate from the unfunded liability rate (then 45%, and now 50%) to the normal cost rate (10%).[1]

For clarity, here are the four different rates we’re talking about:

  • School district contribution rate for state- and locally-paid teachers: 0.58%
  • School district contribution rate for federally-funded teachers: 10%
  • Unfunded liability rate: 50%. (This would be the rate a school district would pay for a federally-funded position if HB 656 hadn’t passed. It literally means that if a district hired a teacher at a salary of $50,000, it would have to pay TRS $25,000 as the pension contribution.)
  • Teacher’s employee contribution rate: 9%.[2]

The upshot here is that the $8 billion in federal funds won’t stretch quite as far for school districts as it would if it was state money. School districts will still probably weigh their options and maximize their accounting expertise to pay for salaries with state and local money, while buying materials with federal funds.

We fought hard against the unfunded liability rate because it was a tremendous inequity, so some have wondered whether it’s fair to charge the 10% normal cost rate, as opposed to the nominal 0.58. After all, it still charges local districts more if their money comes from federal sources based on poverty than if it comes from local sources driven by property wealth.

It is still an inequity – just like the overall teacher pension funding system, where better-off districts rack up more pension costs to be paid by the State than poorer districts. But continuing to charge the normal cost rate is the responsible policy decision here. Federal funds going to schools can be budgeted for this purpose, and digging the state’s pension funding hole deeper is not a wise decision in the long-term. We can fix the inequity by integrating pension funding with the Evidence-Based Funding Formula, or by gradually shifting pension costs for locally-paid employees to the local districts while increasing Evidence-Based Funding proportionally. (But this is an issue that lives to fight another day…)

The 6% cap

This one is trickier and I don’t know if there’s a perfect solution. In 2005, the legislature imposed the “6% cap” as a way to crack down on golden parachutes. That is, some school districts had gotten into the habit of bargaining for large end-of-career pay spikes for teachers, whose pensions would increase proportionally for life – with the State being on the hook for paying for it. That’s the disconnect between having local employers setting salaries with the State picking up their tab for the pensions.

So the 6% cap was a creative response to discourage this sort of behavior, and it has pretty much tamped down on the egregious pay spiking as intended. But ever since then, there have always been exceptions – like a school district in the midst of a teacher shortage that needs a current teacher to teach an overload, or a teacher taking on a new after-school tutoring responsibility. Those cases might necessitate a raise over 6% without any intention to game the system and spike a pension.

There are a few ways the pandemic will impact the 6% cap:

  • First, with the infusion of federal funding for learning recovery, school districts should be ramping up programs for high-quality tutoring, summer school, enrichment, social-emotional support, extended school days and school years, and other programs. If we want those programs to be effective, we are going to depend on licensed teachers who have the expertise to best support students. And if we want those teachers – many of whom just came off the most stressful teaching year of their career – to sign up to teach and tutor and enrich and support and otherwise significantly extend their work hours, they are going to need more than a 6% salary increase to do it.
  • Second, even without the federal funds, school districts may bump up against the 6% cap in the cases of teachers who used to coach or teach summer school before the pandemic started – but took a pandemic-related pause on those extras. Now, when they get back into the swing of things, they will return to getting the stipends they used to get. Except now, it will trigger the 6% cap.
  • And third, coupling the above considerations with the prospect that school districts may be in a position to provide increases across the salary schedule for teachers who have just completed an exceptionally challenging school year since there will be funding available, the chances of busting the 6% cap is even greater.

So… what’s the policy solution? The intention of the 6% cap was to curb end-of-career salary spiking, not to create barriers to getting great teachers to fill desperately-need positions to make up for learning loss caused by a global pandemic. By the time the bill becomes due (a one-time payment right after the teacher retires), in most cases, it will be past the deadline to spend those federal funds and the school district will have to dip into their state and local resources to pay it. 

While in my opinion, there’s no perfect way to handle this, here are some thoughts for reasonable solutions for this year:

  1. Pause the 6% cap for the year for salary increases tied to additional work responsibilities related to summer school, extended day and year, and other learning recovery-related duties. This could be strengthened with guardrails clarifying that any increase disproportionally targeting end-of-career teachers would not be exempt so as not to open doors to golden parachutes. And heck, might as well make it for 2 – 3 years, because the federal funds are available 2024 and no one wants to see a mad scramble to spend all of it immediately without thoughtful implementation over time.
  2. Allow districts to pre-pay any estimated 6% overage, which would enable them to use the federal funds for that purpose. (Of course, this creates another hiccup because no one really who all is going to retire when, so any pre-payment would be an estimate.)
  3. Appropriate the minimum funding level increase of $350 million in Evidence-Based Funding, because one-time federal funding is nice, but it won’t last over the long-term.
  4. For school districts, consider whether the work you prioritize with your recovery funds is eligible for TRS credit. Extending the school day and year? Those salary increases are pensionable; teacher licensure is required to teach. But what about tutoring? Are districts requiring licensure for tutors? If not, that salary isn’t eligible for TRS. (Apparently this is a frequent subject of audit. If a teacher works the football game for $100, that $100 shouldn’t actually be reported to TRS. But people do it all the time.)
  5. At a minimum, before criticizing school districts for hitting the 6% and paying some overage, consider the extenuating circumstances this year and give everyone a little grace.

Stand for Children would support any of these ideas. We are especially partial to #3, which should happen regardless of any of this. Perhaps #1 may be the most practical concept to work with. As the budget gets crafted over the next two weeks, minimizing the unintended consequences of the 6% cap would certainly be an appropriate inclusion in any budget implementation bill.

[1] This is seriously a big deal. It’s the kind of structural change that advances equity and changes lives. We appreciate the sponsors and legislators who voted to make it happen.

[2] Yes, I know I didn’t actually mention this rate anywhere else, but it is worth mentioning that teachers also contribution a substantial chunk of change from their own paychecks toward their pension benefits. Sometimes districts agree to pick up some or all of that cost through their contract negotiation process; other times, teachers pay the whole thing.

IL state capitol

1/12/2021 UPDATE: The bill has now passed both chambers and will head to the Governor for his signature! Amendment 3 made a few additional changes before it passed, most notably removing the changes to the Invest in Kids Act altogether, launching a feasibility study to consider the appropriate agency home for the Workforce Investment Act program (rather than moving it to IDES), and adding a literacy focus and some parameters to the Freedom Schools section.

1/9/2021 UPDATE: Amendment 2 has been filed. The major difference is that some components have been removed: the Equity in Early Childhood Education Act, the anti-racism grants within the Evidence-Based Funding Formula (which the Professional Review Panel will now consider, instead), the provisions to lengthen the school year for learning recovery, and the driver’s license stuff (which I’m guessing found a more appropriate home in a criminal justice bill). These were all good things; they will live to fight another day. We get it that it’s a careful balancing act when deciding what all goes into a huge package like this and, at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what’s in there if it can’t get 60 votes in the House and 30 in the Senate.

There are some additions of other good stuff, most notably an Inclusive American History Commission and some fleshing out about periods of Black History that have to be taught. It adds prioritization for National Board Certified Teachers stipends to rural and diverse candidate cohort facilitators, and shift administration of the Workforce Investment Act from the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity to the Department of Employment Security.

***

For months, education champion and rockstar negotiator Sen. Kimberly A. Lightford has brought together education and racial justice advocates to craft a nearly 500-page amendment to advance racial equity in Illinois schools, from birth through college. This week, she filed the legislation, compiling dozens of policy changes with the goal of reversing centuries of systemic racism in education and significantly bolstering opportunities for Black students.

This bill is jam-packed with good policy ideas, many of which Stand for Children supported as individual concepts and which we are now pleased to support as an overall package. The summary below walks through everything that is in there as of today, starting with a few of my favorites and eventually getting to everything. (If things change substantially, I’ll pop back over here with some updates over the next few days as well.)

ACADEMIC ACCELERATION

Based on a Washington state law that tripled the percentage of Black high school students in advanced courses, this policy requires schools to automatically enroll students who meet or exceed standards into the next most rigorous course. Students who are automatically enrolled can choose to opt out if a different course better fits their goals. It does not remove any of the existing pathways for enrollment into advanced courses, but it removes any element of implicit bias and opens doors for more students to eventually access courses that earn them early college credit. (pages 62 – 67. See our factsheet here.)

EQUITABLE COURSEWORK FOR COLLEGE ACCESS

No matter where they go to high school, all students should have access to the recommended courses needed for admission into any public university in Illinois. This provision requires the Illinois Board of Higher Education (IBHE) to report college admission coursework recommendations. Students must have access to these recommended courses. Schools can fulfill the requirement to provide it by offering it in house or partnering with a neighboring district, community college, or other course provider. The bill also adds a requirement that the science courses required for graduation be laboratory sciences, and, with a long implementation period to allow teacher pipeline reforms to work, adds two years of foreign language to the graduation requirements. (pages 42 – 49. See our factsheet here.)

EQUITY IN EARLY EDUCATION ACT

Deleted. But stay tuned for this spring… We’ll be working on this! See our factsheet here.

COMPUTER SCIENCE AND LITERACY

The bill defines computer science and directs ISBE to create computer science standards. It requires high schools to offer computer science to student who want it. The graduation requirements are modified to require one course to include a focus in computer literacy. Schools must provide students with opportunities for developmentally appropriate computer literacy skills beginning in elementary school. (pages 49 – 62)

EVIDENCE-BASED FUNDING

The monumental 2017 overhaul of the school funding formula also included a provision creating a Professional Review Panel (PRP) to monitor the formula throughout implementation. HB 2170 would charge the PRP with reviewing the adult-to-student ratios specified in the cost factors to determine whether it accurately reflects staffing needed to support students in poverty, changes in cost factors to promote racial equity, the impact of investing $350 million each year, an overview of alternative funding structures, and potential efficiencies within the system, appropriate funding levels for re-enrolling students who previously dropped out, and evidence-based practices that reduce academic achievement gaps for Black students. (pages 149 – 151)

LEARNING RECOVERY

HB 2170 charges the P-20 Council with considering long-term and short-term learning recovery strategies, including a plan to address the digital divide; evaluate the impact of school closures and remote learning on student outcomes; establish a system for the collection of data; and ensure more time for students’ academic, social emotional, and mental health needs. (pages 67 – 77)

SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL HEALTH

The Whole Child Task Force is created to establish equitable, inclusive, safe, and supported environment in all schools, taking steps to ensure every child has access to educators and social workers trained in evidence-based interventions and restorative practices. (pages 26 – 34) The Freedom Schools fund would provide grants, subject to appropriation, for enriching programs that affirm Black identity. (pages 77 – 81)

DIVERSE EDUCATOR PIPELINE

Four components address the shortage of teachers generally and Black teachers specifically (pages 179 – 208):

  • It removes the 3.0 GPA requirement to get into alternative licensure programs.
  • The Minority Teacher Initiative scholarship program is amended to increase priority funds for Black males, change the prioritization from first come/first serve to those who received scholarships the previous year and have demonstrated financial need, and create a set-aside for bilingual teachers as the appropriation for the program grows.
  • AIM HIGH is amended to reduce universities’ match requirement from 100%, with institutions with more low-income students kicking in 20% and those with fewer low-income students contributing 60%.
  • Finally, the Transitions in Education Act encourages ISBE, IBE, and ICCB to establish a task force for a Major Panel in Education, which would identify courses that would be accepted upon transfer.
  • The National Board Certified Teacher program would prioritize in awarding stipends to NBCT Candidate Cohort Trainers who work with rural and diverse candidates. (pages 252 – 258)

HIGHER EDUCATION ACCESS

Nearly half of full-time community college students are placed in developmental education courses, which do not earn college credit, upon starting college. For Black students, the number is even higher: 71% are funneled into developmental courses. Only 8% of Black students who are placed in developmental education courses will go on to graduate. The Developmental Education Reform Act creates a multiple measures approach to placement in credit-bearing college courses. Students who successfully complete a high school transitional course, earn a specific GPA, or meet certain thresholds on placement exams or standardized tests would be able to bypass developmental courses. Institutions must publicly post their placement policies, and ICCB and IBHE would consolidate the information into reports disaggregated by demographic data and by developmental course model. (pages 155 – 164)

The Equity in Higher Education Act outlines the General Assembly’s support for the IBHE strategic plan to close equity gaps, increase post-secondary degree attainment, and improve affordability. It encourages IBHE to prepare an array of policy changes needed for implementation of the plan by May 1, 2021. (pages 151 – 155)

EARLY CHILDHOOD

Many components of the bill deal with expansion of early childhood, increasing compensation for early childhood teachers, and improving the quality and equity of programs, including provisions to:

  • Codify the requirement for an annual valid, reliable, and developmentally appropriate kindergarten readiness assessment. ISBE currently uses the Kindergarten Individual Development Survey (KIDS) for this. (pages 1 – 11)
  • Allow children to continue receiving early intervention services after their third birthday until the school year starts and they have access to preschool. (pages 11 – 16)
  • Support the goals of the Commission on Equitable Early Childhood Education and Care Funding, which is working to create a more equitable and efficient system, consolidate programs into a single adequately staffed agency, ensure equitable and adequate funding, redesign payment mechanisms, and consider data collection needs. It would also encourage a timetable for the work with a designated body to implement recommendations. (pages 16 – 20)
  • Amend the Infant/Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation Act to encourage increasing availability of consultations, developing materials for providers and parents about the value of mental health consultations, and increasing funding for training and support. It also remedies a problem with diagnostic coding to remove barriers to developmentally appropriate assessments. (pages 34 – 39)
  • Create the Early Childhood Workforce Act to increase the early childhood teacher pipeline and its diversity. Under the Act, DHS, ISBE, and IBHE would each have a role in providing outreach and access to financial supports to increase the diversity of the pipeline, analysis on scholarship recipients, and barriers for early childhood teachers to complete coursework to earn credentials. (pages 40 – 42)
  • Encourage DHS to re-examine the definition of “at-risk” and the diagnosed medical conditions that typically result in a delay, charge the Early Intervention Training Program to create a plan for outreach, develop a plan for the State to launch early intervention specialized teams, and work in a public-private partnership to establish at least two demonstration sites with hospital neo-natal intensive care units. (pages 216 – 220)

INVEST IN KIDS

The Invest in Kids tax-credit scholarship program currently provides donors tax credits for donating to program, which provides private school scholarships to students in families below 300% of the federal poverty level. HB 2170 would add the ability for scholarships to be used at technical academies for Career and Technical Education programs. (pages 164 – 179)

DATA COLLECTION TO SUPPORT RACIAL JUSTICE

data collection provision, which requires the Governor’s Office and the Department of Innovation and Technology to jointly administer a governance to catalog data supporting major programs, identify similar fields in datasets, improve data quality, collect racial and ethnicity data, develop common process and legal approaches for data sharing, establishing common codes across datasets, and generally catalyzing the process to better interagency data analysis. (pages 20 – 26)

INCLUSIVE HISTORY CURRICULUM

The bill requires ISBE to adopt social science learning standards that are inclusive of all individuals in the country. An Inclusive American History Commission is created to review available resources for use in schools that reflect the diversity of the State, provide guidance on each learning standard on how to ensure instruction and curriculum are not bias to value specific cultures or experiences over others, and provide guidance on professional learning on how to utilize and locate non-dominant cultural narratives and sources. It also amends the Black History study requirement to add the pre-enslavement period and the American civil rights renaissance, and a study of the reasons why Black people came to be enslaved. (pages 208 – 214)

WORKFORCE INVESTMENT ACT ADMINISTRATION

The responsibilities and funding connected to the Workforce Investment Act are transferred from the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity to the Department of Employment Security. (pages 214 – 252)

Illinois State Capitol

High property taxes drive school funding inequity. But for every 2 districts that over-tax, there is at least 1 under-taxing district out there.

The Evidence-Based Funding Formula identifies a target property tax rate for every district. The model calculates how much each district needs to be funded adequately. It then specifies a local capacity percentage (LCP) based on how much property wealth each district has. A district with lots of property wealth will have an LCP of up to 90%. That means if a district’s per pupil adequacy target is $12,000 and its LCP is 75%, the formula expects the district to raise $9,000 per pupil locally. From there, we can back into an “implied” tax rate for each district.

Most districts tax themselves higher than their implied tax rate. (Those are all the orange dots above the blue line in the chart below.) But 310 districts (the orange dots below the blue line) actually tax themselves lower than that rate. A rate freeze would impact these districts across the board. Freezing undertaxed districts would guarantee that those schools will never reach adequate funding. (And inflationary increases compound quickly, so lots of the 543 districts that are “over-taxing” now would fall under the blue line after a few years of increased adequacy costs and frozen levies.)

Addressing property taxes in the formula was a sticking point during the school funding negotiations. Should the formula recognize districts’ whole property tax levy? If they are over-taxing themselves, that could push the districts into a higher tier and further solidify their reliance on property taxes. If they are under-taxing themselves, that could knock them down a tier and put them in line for more state funding than other deserving districts that have put forth more local effort.

On the other hand, should the formula ignore actual rates and just use the implied rates? That would completely disconnect the question of how districts tax locally with how much state funding they get for their schools. There would be no incentive to under-tax, but no disincentive to over-tax.

The Evidence-Based Formula decided to use the best of both worlds: for districts that were under-taxing (the orange dots below the blue line), the model assumes they are taxing at their implied rate (the blue line itself). For districts that are over-taxing themselves (orange dots above the blue line), the model recognizes a portion of their overage in order to encourage them to reduce their rates. How much depends on how much property wealth a district has. The overage is multiplied by the district’s LCP, thus wealthier districts will be penalized more for overtaxing and therefore, incentivized further to lower their levies.

Let’s look at a few examples:

  • An under-funded district trying to compensate locally. North Chicago SD 187, a property-poor district that is expected to raise just 10% of its funds locally. That gives the district a $5.5 million target levy. However, North Chicago is so underfunded, it taxes itself almost twice that much, $5.1 million more. Because the district’s LCP is 10%, just 10% of that over-levy will “count” against the district in the formula.
  • An above-adequacy over-taxer. The property-wealthy Bannockburn SD 106 is expected to raise $1.8 million, which is 90% of its adequacy target. But the district brings in $5.5 million, $4.7 million more than the model expects. The formula will recognize 90% of Bannockburn’s $4.7 million overage.
  • An almost-adequate under-taxer. Rockdale SD 84 in Will County is expected to raise 60% of its adequacy target from property taxes. But it only brings in 24% of that total. Its implied tax rate is 3.2%, but its actual rate is just about 1.2%. The formula assumes that Rockdale raises its full Local Capacity Target. It would hardly be fair to the rest of the districts to reward Rockdale’s under-taxing with more state money. But it would be equally unfair to Rockdale to freeze its levy where it is, so far from its expected rate with a formula that assumes it has access to those resources.

In the statewide aggregate, there are over $3 billion in property taxes levied by school districts above what the formula expects them to bring in. About $2 billion of those are for school districts funded below adequacy. There are about $1 billion in property tax over-levies in over-adequacy districts. Finally, there are $670 million in uncaptured property tax receipts, almost all in districts that are funded below adequacy.

Finding the right balance between providing property tax relief and moving toward adequate school funding is a challenge. If it was easy, someone would have done it. But it’s worth it to wade into this complex territory because this is such a critical issue. Let’s just make sure we acknowledge that it is complicated and will require more than a one-size-fits-all solution.

Sometimes I feel like my work life and home life are totally disconnected, competing elements in my world. But that certainly wasn’t the case the day I was at work drumming up info on how early childhood programs were being defunded and I received a text that the program for the 3-year old of my teenage foster daughter was ending because they lost their state grant.

This program, Parents as Teachers, is among hundreds of early child providers who responded to the Request for Proposals (RFP) from the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE). Many programs got funded. In fact, because Springfield added $50 million more this year to the Early Childhood Block Grant (ECBG), there will be 5,000 more kids getting access to programs this year. However, a hundred or so did not receive a grant, and some long-serving programs are planning to close their doors.

Before we get into why, let’s start with the basics: What is the ECBG? It’s a program in the ISBE budget that funds preschool and birth-to-three programs. This year, there was almost $500 million appropriated to the ECBG. Programs serving children ages 0-3 receive about 20% of the funds and the remainder goes to preschool programs.

State law requires funding to be awarded through competitive grants. That is, districts and other providers apply for grants, and ISBE funds the ones deemed to be high-quality. This year, the RFP process was opened to new applicants, which is a change since the last RFP process in 2012. At that time, the RFP was only open to providers that had previously received grants. Not only was this year’s RFP process open to new applicants, so the pool was bigger, applicants were encouraged to write their proposals for the actual costs of providing a high-quality program, so a lot more money was requested than there were available funds. Providers could apply for Prevention Initiative funding (for birth-to-three programs), Preschool for All (for Pre-K programs), and Preschool for All Expansion grants (to expand infrastructure and fund full-day programs in high-poverty areas’ Pre-K programs).

ISBE Rules outline what the agency looks for in the proposals and require programs to earn at least 60 points, with 100 points possible:

  • Population to be Served (e.g., how much poverty is in the area and how well do programs recruit the students most in need) – 30 points
  • Quality of Program – 40 points
  • Experience and Qualifications of Program Staff – 20 points
  • Cost Effectiveness of the Program – 10 points

ISBE added 10 additional “priority points” for programs that serve the neediest populations and regions. Three reviewers scored each proposal and their scores were averaged. Programs with more than 60 points would be qualified for funding. (Some programs we’ve heard about in the news didn’t meet the 60-point threshold, like Waukegan and Jonesboro.)

Among the programs that scored over 60, several dozen Prevention Initiative and Preschool Expansion Grants still did not receive a grant because there was not enough money to fully fund the need. (My foster granddaughter’s program is in this category: it received 70 points, but ISBE only had enough funds to get through Prevention Initiative applications scoring over 77 points.) You can see the scores for all the applicants here. It would cost about $20 million to fund the programs in this category.

And finally, a third group of programs are the ones that did get funded. Many of these applicants wrote grants based on what they needed to run a world-class program, with the best evidence-based practices. ISBE awarded these applicants a cost-of-living bump from their last grant, but none got the sort of funding increase they sought. If the requested amounts had been fully funded, it would have cost $170 million.

In a bit of good news, yesterday ISBE announced that, the agency is working with the Department of Human Services to find the $20 million needed to fund all the qualified programs (the ones scoring over 60).

There’s no easy solution to any of this as long as we continue to underfund early childhood.

I’ve heard some suggest that early childhood funding should flow through a formula instead of through competitive grants. In fact, during the school funding reform debate, some early drafts moved early childhood funds into the main funding formula. The most obvious problem with this approach is that formula funds go to school districts, while about one-third of early childhood providers are non-profit organizations, which don’t get formula dollars.

There are other questions too, like whether the quality of programs funded would be impacted and whether funds would be used for other purposes if they were added to the main formula. The Professional Review Panel, created in the school funding bill, met for the first time last month and created a subcommittee on early childhood issues. I’m guessing that will be the most immediate place for the formula vs. grant conversation, and I’m also hopeful that the panel will discuss what “adequate” early childhood funding looks like so that we can also put Illinois on the path to fully funding the needs for all of our young children.

Illinois state capitol

The Governor signed the budget today (yay!) and we’re all praising the legislature for adding another $350 million towards the evidence-based funding formula enacted last year.

Let’s break down that $350 million a bit more.

$300 million of that figure will be equitably distributed first to the school districts that are the most under-funded (i.e., furthest away from adequacy) and just like last year, no district will lose money.

The remaining $50 million will be “swapped” for property tax relief, with those funds rebated to homeowners in the form of grants.

If Springfield had allocated more than $350 million, the remaining amounts would be handled in the same manner as the $300 million.

This is the first time in history that these property tax relief grants have been funded. It’s uncharted territory, but here’s how it works:

  • School districts with the highest property tax rates can apply for a grant.
  • By August 1 of each year, the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) will estimate what tax rate school districts must have in order to be eligible. It all depends on how much money is put into the fund, since more funding means the state can afford more grants.
  • School districts can apply until October 1 for grants worth up to 1% of the “equalized assessed value” of property in the district.
  • By December 1, ISBE will publish a list of districts that qualify, based on the total number of applicants and the threshold tax rate for relief.
  • Qualifying districts will receive their grant payments by January 15.
  • School districts, in turn, rebate the amount of the grant to their property taxpayers.

One of the facts that became abundantly clear during the examination and re-write of the formula is that school funding isn’t just inequitable for students. It’s also inequitable for property taxpayers. Those who live in the poorest areas pay the highest property tax rates. For example, at the lower wealth end of the spectrum, one elementary district in the south suburbs has a tax rate of 9.8%, but it is still only 59% funded. At the other side, one of the wealthier elementary districts – which is funded at 288% – has a rate of just 1.5%.

So in August, you might take a peek at the ISBE website to see what tax rates might qualify. If your school district has a higher rate, ping your school board about going for a grant. It’s a new program and it’ll take some work to get it going, but what a great opportunity to reduce the reliance on property taxes without costing our schools those needed resources!