Friday, Jan. 16


Blagojevich commits to reform
Illinois education system    
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[JAN. 16, 2004]  SPRINGFIELD -- During his second annual State of the State address, Gov. Rod Blagojevich on Thursday called for sweeping changes to the Illinois education system, starting with transferring the administrative responsibilities of the Illinois State Board of Education to a new Illinois Department of Education.

In a joint session of the General Assembly, the governor urged legislators to join him in supporting ways to streamline the enormous education bureaucracy, improve students' reading skills, link vital state services to families, improve health and nutrition in schools, continually educate Illinois teachers, further prepare students for college and the job market, and send more at-risk children to preschool.

"I'm not satisfied with the state of education in the state of Illinois," Gov. Blagojevich said. "The children deserve better. The parents deserve better. The taxpayers deserve better. If we are really serious about fixing our schools, then we have to be serious about change and reform."

Because he believes the Illinois State Board of Education has failed in its responsibility to lead education in Illinois, Gov. Blagojevich is proposing legislation that would remove all administrative powers and responsibilities from the board and place them in the new Department of Education under the governor. The Department of Education will lead the charge to streamline state-level education administration and reduce noninstructional costs to school districts. It's estimated this change will result in savings of more than $1 billion over four years, which will be reinvested in Illinois classrooms.

Mismanagement and misplaced spending have defined the Illinois State Board of Education, according to the governor. At the same time, the board has failed to produce results, demonstrated by Illinois students' under-performance on national testing in 2003. Instead of being a resource for local school districts in the classroom, the board has saddled them with complicated administrative rules and thousands of pages of paperwork. Furthermore, the board spends only 46 percent of education funding on direct instruction. In fact, Illinois is among the lowest ranked states in the nation in terms of education spending in the classrooms.

"Like many unaccountable bureaucracies, the Illinois State Board of Education turned into an organization that exists more for the benefit of its own administrators than for the benefit of the children of this state," the governor said.

For these reasons, Gov. Blagojevich is proposing a seven-part plan creating the new Department of Education.

1. The department will work with local educators to streamline the 2,800 pages of rules governing education in Illinois

2. The department will partner with the regional offices of education and local districts to provide schools with better administrative services, at a fraction of current costs.

3. The department will create a "statewide educator benefits purchasing center" to decrease the cost of health care coverage for school districts and their employees.

4. The department will create a "state center" for school districts to purchase products at state-negotiated prices.

5. The department will work with the Capital Development Board to reduce the costs of school construction.

6. The department will streamline applications for state funding by rewriting programs to cut bureaucracy and simplifying the process by which school districts request state assistance.

7. The department will deliver all the services outlined above for less than 80 percent of Illinois State Board of Education funding and with 60 percent of the board's current head count.

"By creating a Department of Education that's accountable to the legislature, accountable to the governor and most importantly, accountable to the parents and to the children of this state," the governor said, "this will solve more of our problems, answer more of our questions and free up more money, more time and more resources for the classroom, so that children can learn, test scores can improve, and the education system in Illinois gets better."

In addition to the proposed Department of Education, the governor highlighted other new and innovative ways to improve education in the state.

Imagination Libraries

The Imagination Libraries initiative will provide free books for all Illinois children from birth until age 5. The state will partner with the Dollywood Foundation of Tennessee and the Illinois Hospital Assocation to send 12 age-appropriate books a year to children, free of charge. Parents will receive the first book in maternity wards at hospitals and register to receive future books.

If every single Illinois child participates, totaling about 1 million children, Imagination Libraries is expected to cost around $26 million. However, the program costs for its first year are expected to be about one-third of that amount. Funding will begin July 1.

Project Success

Gov. Blagojevich is proposing to revive Project Success. This initiative will provide a link for families to various state services necessary for their children to succeed in school. Former Gov. Jim Edgar created Project Success in 1991, but former Gov. George Ryan later eliminated it.

The initiative will provide a comprehensive, systematic delivery system that responds to various needs of children and families, using the school as a hub of delivery. Services include basic preventative health care for children, proper nutrition and education, mental health services for children and families, services promoting the stability of families, substance abuse prevention and intervention, and social activities to bolster parental and community involvement in a child's education. The governor's initiative will create local governing boards to identify needs of children and develop specific plans to meet those needs. Local coordinators will ensure Project Success is reaching the maximum number of children.

The project is estimated to cost $5 million dollars and would begin July 1.

Reading specialists

Gov. Blagojevich is proposing to put reading specialists in Illinois elementary schools that are failing to meet reading achievement standards. An additional $15 million will be added to the Reading Improvement Block Grant in fiscal 2004 to hire the specialists for schools that are on the Early Academic Warning list and have failed to meet Adequate Yearly Progress standards for two consecutive years on the state ISAT tests in reading. In 2003, only 62 percent of third graders and 60.4 percent of fifth graders met or exceeded Illinois Learning Standards for reading.

Reading specialists utilize up-to-date reading techniques and strategies to diagnose students' reading weakness. The specialists also provide one-on-one instruction that elementary school teachers often do not have the time or resources to provide.


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Community service

Gov. Blagojevich wants to require all Illinois high school students to perform 40 hours of community service in order to graduate. Because every community is unique, the governor's proposal allows each local school district to define what qualifies as community service. Research in a national education journal found that 83 percent of schools with community service requirements report higher grade-point averages for participating students.

It's estimated the community service requirement will require $6 million in fiscal 2005. Of the $6 million, each local high school will receive $10,000 to fund two coordinators to implement the requirement. The proposed legislation calls for the requirement to begin for the 2006 incoming class.

Junk food and soda ban

Because overweight and unhealthy children are an epidemic in America, Gov. Blagojevich proposes to ban soda and junk food from school vending machines by Jan. 1, 2005. Studies show that, compared with 20 years ago, more than three times as many children now are considered overweight. Additionally, a study in Arkansas found that type 2 diabetes, a condition once found almost exclusively in adults, is up 800 percent among children since a decade ago.

Banning junk food and soda is not expected to financially burden local school districts. In fact, some schools with junk food bans already in place are making money. New York schools, for example, earned $166 million as a result of a contract with Snapple to provide vending machines that offer only water and fruit juices.

Legislation to ban junk food and soda has already been filed. The governor urges the General Assembly to pass the bill during the spring legislative session.

Illinois Hunger Relief Act

Gov. Blagojevich is supporting Senate Bill 1400, which creates the Hunger Relief Act. The proposed legislation requires schools with 40 percent of the student population eligible for free or reduced lunches to also offer breakfast. Last year, Illinois school cafeterias served more than 99 million free lunches but less than 30 million free breakfasts. Numerous studies conclusively link proper nutrition to cognitive ability. The Illinois Hunger Coalition reports that students who are properly nourished at the start of the day perform academically higher in class. The proposed legislation applies to more than 300 Illinois schools in more than 100 districts.

This type of legislation is largely supported by the United States Department of Agriculture and is anticipated to cost the state $1 million once it becomes effective.

Teacher certification and preparation

Gov. Blagojevich is proposing three initiatives aimed at better preparing and continually educating Illinois teachers.

First, the governor will create a statewide task force to study the issue of alternative routes to teacher certification. Members of the task force will include representatives from the K-12 community, teacher unions, university teacher educators, the General Assembly, the governor's office and the business community.

Second, the governor is proposing legislation to require all kindergarten through eighth-grade teachers with a standard or master certificate to complete 50 percent of their certificate renewal requirements by taking courses in reading strategies at universities or by participating in various professional development opportunities. This initiative will not create additional burdens for teachers, as they are already required to take course work or to participate in professional development activities to be recertified.

Third, the governor is proposing to create a Professional Teacher Standards Board. The board will administer the certification of teachers and other school personnel. All certification and program approval processes currently handled by the Illinois State Board of Education and the State Teacher Certification Board will be transferred to the new Professional Teacher Standards Board. The governor stresses the importance of the new board, indicating that the Illinois State Board of Education has not fulfilled its responsibilities to certify teachers in a timely fashion or to provide much-needed assistance to teachers regarding recertification.

Preparing students for careers

Gov. Blagojevich is proposing to expand the Illinois Tech Prep Program to help prepare students who are not planning to attend a four-year university for vocational careers. Technology preparation programs begin in high school and lead to two-year apprenticeships, associate of applied science degree programs or two-year certificate programs. This program gives young people a clear path toward employment and boosts the graduation rate among participants. In fact, a study of the Illinois Tech Prep Program found 93 percent of participants in the program graduate from high school.

Currently, $5 million in state funding and an equal number of federal dollars support the Illinois Tech Prep Program.

Early childhood education funding commitment

In order to send 25,000 more at-risk children to preschool over a three-year period, the governor proposes to increase funding for the Early Childhood Block Grant. The Chicago Longitudinal Study found that at-risk children who receive high-quality education are more likely to complete high school, less likely to be arrested as a juvenile for a violent offense, less likely to be neglected or abused, and less likely to be placed in special education.

Last year, the governor increased the block grant by about $29 million, sending 8,330 more at-risk children to preschool. He will continue that commitment over the next two years, to reach his goal of sending 25,000 more at-risk children to preschool.

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Gov. Blagojevich firmly believes that these initiatives, starting with the new Department of Education, are critical to move Illinois forward. He urges members of the General Assembly and the citizens of Illinois to join him in this fight. To provide citizens more of a voice in the process, the governor created a toll-free education hot line for the public to leave messages of support and concern related to his education plan. The phone number is 1 (800) 750-6042.

"We cannot continue to make the mistakes of the past. We cannot continue to allow the bureaucracy to stand in the way of educating our children," the governor said. "At this time, at this moment, we share a unique opportunity -- an opportunity to change things, to challenge the status quo, to move forward."

[News release from governor's office]

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