Gubernatorial candidates weigh in on education in Illinois

Adriana Colindres

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of stories that provide in-depth discussion of where the candidates for Illinois' next governor stand on the key issues facing state government. GateHouse News Service surveyed the campaigns and will provide their answers in stories that will run regularly throughout November and December.

Illinois has long struggled with thorny questions about how best to fund schools and ensure that all children receive a quality education that readies them for employment or further schooling.

Those questions aren't going away soon, and the winner of the 2010 gubernatorial election is certain to grapple with tough decisions on the education front.

GateHouse News Service asked candidates for governor to respond to a series of questions about education. Seven Republicans and two Democrats were included.

Q. What should state government's role should be with regard to education? How does that compare with the role of local school boards and local school officials?

Republican hopefuls generally agree the state should give local school boards and officials more of a say in running schools.

Businessman Adam Andrzejewski said the state's role should be to set and enforce proven standards, while local school officials should "meet those standards in any way they see fit."

State Sen. Bill Brady would eliminate the State Board of Education and "restructure our educational bureaucracy" by creating a smaller education department accountable to the governor.

State Sen. Kirk Dillard believes the state should help provide the resources allowing teachers and administrators to do their jobs.

Businessman and former state GOP head Andy McKenna said state government should set high standards for schools and make sure taxpayers' money is effectively used.

Commentator Dan Proft said educating children "is first and foremost a choice that resides with parents, not the government," and local school officials should oversee finances, staff and curriculum.

Former Attorney General Jim Ryan said state government "should help shape the direction of school policy" while letting local school boards apply those principles.

DuPage County Board Chairman Bob Schillerstrom said the state should do more to help local school boards and officials decide which learning programs provide the greatest opportunities for students.

On the Democratic side, state Comptroller Dan Hynes said state government plays an integral role in education and should ensure adequate funding is available.

Gov. Pat Quinn, also a Democrat, said state government should act quickly to change the school funding system to rely less on property taxes and ensure the state foots more of the bill.

Q. How would you describe the current state of education in Illinois? What is the most pressing problem, and how would you propose fixing it?

The consensus among most Republicans is that the quality varies widely, allowing some Illinois students to receive a better education than others.

Andrzejewski, McKenna and Brady all said there should be more charter schools. Brady also supports allowing struggling school districts to offer vouchers so students may attend private school.

Dillard called for concentrating on basics and said he'd review "all mandates and unessential classroom activities to ensure that there is more time in the classroom to learn reading, writing, math and science."

Proft proposed granting state scholarships to children from low-income families so they can attend any school they want.

Ryan supports more school choice, more money directed to classrooms and incentives to attract the best teachers into the worst districts.

Schillerstrom favors a better data-analyzing system to shed light on which educational programs work and which ones don't.

Hynes said insufficient funding is "the root of most inadequacies" in the Illinois education system, and his proposed budget plan would provide more revenue "so the state can begin to live up to its responsibilities."

Quinn said Illinois needs equitable school funding that secures a quality education for all children, no matter where they live. As governor, he said, he signed a bill that creates more charter schools and increases accountability.

Q. Do you think Illinois' schools are adequately financed? Why or why not? What, if anything, should be changed?

Andrzejewski and Proft said the state should stop funding education bureaucracies and invest directly in students and families through school choice options.

Dillard, McKenna and Schillerstrom agreed that increases in education funding haven't resulted in better student test scores. Dillard and Schillerstrom said they oppose raising income taxes to bolster the existing school finance system. McKenna said more education dollars need to reach the classroom.

Ryan favors a "65 percent solution" that would direct an extra $1 billion into classrooms by requiring or encouraging school districts to spend 65 cents of every dollar on classroom instruction.

Brady wants to use "10 percent of natural growth in state tax revenues each year to proportionately pay a larger share of local education costs" and lower property taxes.

Hynes said the state isn't providing adequate money for elementary, secondary or post-secondary education.

Quinn wants to "move as quickly as possible to overhaul the way public schools are financed in Illinois."

Q. Is the existing system of standardized tests a good way to measure the academic progress of Illinois' school children? Why or why not? What, if any, other ways should be used to measure students' achievement?

Andrzejewski said standardized tests are adequate, though he'd be open to making improvements.

Brady opposes requiring all high school students to take the ACT, and said only college-bound students should have to take it.

Dillard would use high school graduation rates and college and job-attainment rates, in addition to test scores, to gauge student performance.

McKenna said when standardized tests are properly administered, they improve individual students' educational outcomes "by setting high standards and establishing measurable goals."

Proft and Ryan said the tests can serve as a baseline for measuring student achievement, but that other forms of assessment also should be used.

Schillerstrom called for tougher testing standards that align better with the demands of employers and colleges.

Hynes said the tests "can be an inaccurate and arbitrary predictor," presenting problems for students with disabilities and students from non-English-speaking households.

Quinn said in addition to using standardized tests, officials also should measure "the ways in which students can learn to work together to serve their neighbors and their communities."

Q. How can Illinois close the so-called "achievement gap"?

Andrzejewski and Brady cited the need to improve parental involvement, in part by letting them have a greater say in where their children attend school. Brady also favors merit pay for teachers.

McKenna favors parental choice and the expansion of charter schools.

Dillard and Ryan also called for more charter schools, and Dillard and Proft agreed there's no "one size fits all" approach to closing the achievement gap. Ryan said the state should "provide more incentives to get the best teachers into the worst schools."

Schillerstrom said student performance should be measured as soon as a child starts kindergarten because that would help educators decide "how to direct resources to the students in need."

Hynes wants the State Board of Education to upgrade its assessment program, and he said the state must better train and evaluate educators so they can assist students.

Quinn wants to adequately fund school districts and hold educators, as well as students, accountable. He also supports eliminating the "digital divide" – a reference to schools' disparity in technology.

Q. What other suggestions do you have for improving Illinois' educational system?

Andrzejewski would make sure the system "is there for the students, and not the powerful interests that make up the 'education industry.' "

Brady would ensure that parents who opt to home-school their children "remain independent of state oversight."

Dillard favors more school consolidation and stepped-up efforts to prevent school violence.

McKenna said principals and school boards should have greater control, including flexibility to set teacher pay based on classroom performance.

Proft wants to implement a 9 a.m.-5 p.m. school day, year-round school and lift the state's cap on the number of charter schools.

Ryan called for a focus on civic education because "getting students involved in government and politics is a great way to ensure we have the best possible leaders going forward."

Schillerstrom would establish a new fund to provide money to schools offering innovative ideas for improved student performance.

Hynes said schools must be safe and orderly. "One way to accomplish this is to make sure that teachers and administrators are closely monitoring and managing their students' behavioral skills," he said.

Quinn said government should keep "children first." Officials must work to expand Illinois' economy so new graduates can find jobs and so families can afford to educate their children, he said.

Adriana Colindres can be reached at (217) 782-6292 oradriana.colindres@sj-r.com.