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Report: For Illinois youth, future success tied to education funding

Tasha Green Cruzat, President of Voices for Illinois Children writes in the report that "The data . . . tells a strong story about achievement and opportunity gaps. It also illustrates how we got here: by adults making choices to give some children less of what they need to be successful students." | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

An annual tracking of child well-being finds huge gaps statewide in educational access and achievement that spans birth through college, and disproportionally affects low-income and minority children.

Illinois Kids Count 2017, being released Thursday by Voices for Illinois Children, blames systemic inequities in access to early childhood education, public funding for kindergarten through 12th grade, and both readiness for and access to college for those disheartening education statistics.

The annual report by the advocacy group shines new light on the critical nature of recent reforms to Illinois’ public education funding system. It found 82 percent of state kids most in need had access to preschool in 2015.

In 2016, only 22 percent of third-graders in that same population were meeting English Language Arts standards; and only 14 percent of sixth-graders were meeting math standards. Racial disparities in graduation rates remain entrenched. In 2016, only 75 percent of African-American students graduated in four years; 81 percent of Hispanic students, and 90 percent of white students.

About two-thirds of all high-school grads were going on to college, but rates varied greatly across school districts and counties, from a low of 15 percent in Franklin County to a high of 90 percent in Calhoun County.

Of those enrolling in college, less than half were meeting college readiness benchmarks, and only 60 percent were graduating from public or private nonprofit colleges and universities.

“The data in this report tells a strong story about achievement and opportunity gaps. It also illustrates how we got here: by adults making choices to give some children less of what they need to be successful students,” Voices President Tasha Green Cruzat writes in the report.

“More often than not, we give low-income and minority students in Illinois less effective teachers, less experienced principals, a less rigorous curriculum, and fewer resources. And then we shrug our shoulders and say ‘those kids just can’t be expected to be high achievers,'” she writes. “If we want Illinois to be the best state for all children to grow up in, then we must change these systemic inequities.”

The report concludes that Illinois will only make systemic gains in education for all students by increasing investments in quality early childhood education programs for low and middle-income children; addressing inequities in resources, teacher and principal distribution, curriculum and discipline; and strengthening after-school programs, health and other support services.

Cruzat, however, noted in an interview that other highlights of the county-by-county report — part of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s national Kids Count network tracking the status of America’s children — offer hope for the future.

“There are opportunities to learn from others who have been successful. There are seven school districts, for example, where you see 100 percent of African-American students graduating in four years, and 15 districts where we’re seeing a similar success rate for Hispanics. So we see this can be done,” Cruzat said. “We have no excuse. We need to ask, what are some of the services and support systems in place in these districts, and share strategies.”