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Kadner: New education head in Illinois defends teachers, parents

Illinois Secretary of Education Beth Purvis, flanked by Gov. Bruce Rauner, discusses the state's school funding formula during a press conference Tuesday, June 12, 2016 at the Thompson Center. File Photo. | Lou Foglia/Sun-Times

Money matters when it comes to public education, parents are not an obstacle to student achievement in low-income school districts and a minimum of $3.5 billion more is needed for public education in Illinois.

Those aren’t the thoughts of a liberal Democrat or bleeding-heart newspaper columnist, but the conclusions of Illinois Secretary of Education Beth Purvis, an appointee of Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner.

OPINION

During a telephone conversation with me following Rauner’s budget address last week, Purvis made it clear that she was not just a figurehead as she chaired a 25-member bi-partisan commission on education funding in Illinois.

In 30-plus years of writing about public education funding in this state, I can’t recall encountering a Republican as outspoken in defense of teachers, students, parents and schools.

That said, I have talked to many elected and appointed Democrats who have said such things and were either lying about their commitment to school funding, or incompetent. In either case, they were so ineffectual that as property taxes skyrocketed to support public education in Illinois, this state became known for the most unfair and racially biased school financing system in the country.

The appointment of Purvis, a former CEO of Chicago international Charter School, a private company that operates 14 charter schools, was viewed with skepticism, despite an extensive background in special education.

Under her guidance, the Illinois School Funding Reform Commission issued a report Feb. 1 with more than two dozen recommendations supported by Republican and Democratic lawmakers appointed to the panel. While these recommendations outlined specific changes that needed to be made to help schools financially and academically, the commission failed to provide specific legislative language.

When I asked Purvis about that failure, she said the group was never tasked with writing an education bill, but was directed by the governor to make recommendations to the Illinois General Assembly to reform the current school funding formula.

Without a specific piece of legislation endorsed by the commission’s Senate and House members, Republicans and Democrats, are likely to draw up competing bills that fail to get a majority of votes in both chambers, or the governor’s blessing.

Purvis suggests that her panel’s 18-page report can act as a guidebook for bringing all political factions together in Springfield and creates a foundation for adequate, evidence-based public school funding in Illinois schools.

As for the lack of money to do anything in Illinois, Purvis notes that the governor has asked for $250 million more for education in this year’s budget and her commission recommended a 10-year plan to increase funding by $3.5 billion, with the poorest school districts in the state given financial priority.

When I replied that many schools in middle-class communities are also underfunded and it would likely take more than $3.5 billion to adequately fund them over 10 years, while holding other school districts harmless, Purvis didn’t immediately object to that assumption as many Republicans have in the past. Purvis said she understood the challenges and the $3.5 billion was proposed as the minimum target, not the ultimate goal.

I then challenged Purvis with the response I often receive from conservative critics of public education.

It’s the parents who are at fault for underachieving children and throwing money at the schools isn’t going to change anything, I said, playing devil’s advocate.

That’s when Purvis replied that she had spent decades working with school parents and “I will take on anyone who suggests parents don’t care about their child’s education.”

As for money making a difference, Purvis said, all anyone has to do is look at the test results from schools in this state and they can see there is a correlation between money and performance.

There have been many previous school funding panels in this state and each of them ultimately failed due to a lack of follow-up. If this is to be anything more than a public relations stunt, Purvis and the governor have to achieve real change.

Email: philkadner@gmail.com

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