New state school chief says equity in education funding is top priority

SHARE New state school chief says equity in education funding is top priority

Illinois’ incoming superintendent of education, Tony Smith, has some personal experience with statewide testing.

His 10-year-old daughter, who attends public school, took the PARCC test and the computer crashed, leading her to have to restart the test — three times.

“She’s a little grinder, she’s like: ‘I kept at it. I did it, Dad,’” he said in an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times on Wednesday. “Those bandwidth issues are absolutely real. Not every kid is going to push through it. So we’ve got a long way to go.”

Still, when Smith takes over on May 1, he does so as a supporter of the statewide testing, saying it isn’t perfect but it is the best option now to measure students across the state.

Sitting in a room inside offices owned by Salem Baptist Church, where Illinois State Board of Education Chairman James Meeks is pastor, Smith talked about his belief in equity for all students and a dedication to school quality. Smith recently worked at a private education fund in Oak Park, where he moved following a stint as superintendent of schools in Oakland, Calif.

Smith, who will be paid a base salary of $225,000 a year, said he moved to Oak Park with his wife and two daughters in 2013 after his wife’s father fell ill. Smith, who has a reputation for embracing charter schools, said he thinks charters are unique in that there’s a specific contract.

It’s: ‘we’re going to get these outcomes in this amount of time and it’s time-bound,” he said. “So there’s kind of a kind of a direct accountability. …We’ve definitely closed charter schools that were not doing well.”

Here is an edited version of questions and answers Smith gave on some top education topics.

Gov. Bruce Rauner wants to expand charters. Where do you stand?

What I like are quality schools. … Schools that do that well, I think we should have as many of them as possible. There are some charters that do that. There are some in-district public schools that do that. … I think it’s really important to clarify that I’m really about quality schools and making sure schools have what they need to become quality schools.

What are your top goals in Illinois?

I think that funding inequity has to be the first, foremost and always on the conversation and on the agenda. Our ability to figure out how to support all the kids in Illinois in ways that they need it, ways to distribute resources in ways that are fair.

How do you address funding inequity when so much education money is drawn from property taxes?

California moved to a weighted student formula. … There has to be a state plan on how you distribute those dollars, based on need, English language status, poverty, foster… you have to get real about what kids are really facing. If you just want to have a single high goal and say everybody has to have the same to get that high goal, I have never seen that happen.

 Do you think Illinois needs more than one charter authorizer?

I believe deeply that folks closest to the decision are generally best positioned to make the decision. However… if it’s only about the idea, then there has to be some other regulatory mechanism to review them … there has to be some kind of check and balance.

What do you say to those who believe Rauner wants you to close public schools and expand charters?

I say that they should talk to Chairman Meeks from the state board. That’s who I interviewed with. … Obviously, the governor has strong beliefs.  So does the state board. I think my charge is really to support district superintendents and communities … that charter conversation isn’t at this point a statewide conversation.

How do you improve struggling schools?

Different states have passed legislation where different districts have tweaked time, learning standards, as long as they’re demonstrating outcomes. I think we really have to think about the innovation work. There’s so much change happening.

 Where do you stand on PARCC (The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) test?

I think PARCC is really important. I don’t think it’s where it really needs to be yet. I think the power of it is there’s a use value to the test. Taking the test – you have to do some things demonstrated on the screen. … There are some good things I think that PARCC could help us do. … The fight about no testing and stopping testing, it sounds great (but) I think the questions [are] of equity and how do we know and how do we ensure that opportunity gaps are closed. There has to be some measurements consistent across that. I don’t know exactly what it looks like. But I think PARCC is a great attempt. 

You favor eliminating zero-tolerance policies?

I think it makes a lot of sense … over time with support. It’s not something that can be done overnight. … The idea is not that you punish somebody for breaking a rule. It’s a rupture of a relationship. The idea is much more fundamental. That’s not simple work. 

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