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Illinois Board Preparing Reform Plan For Rugged Test in State Legislature

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Springfield, Ill--The Illinois State Board of Education, stung by defeats a year ago in its effort to ease some state demands on local school districts, is piecing together a sweeping program that it expects to become the focal point of school-reform activity when the new General Assembly convenes next January.

The board put the first component of its three-part reform initiative in place recently, approving recommendations presented by State Superintendent Donald G. Gill for changes in the preparation, recruitment, and performance of school personnel. The board is expected in coming weeks to endorse the second component--a curriculum reform based on "outcome statements" detailing what students should know as a result of their schooling.

And by late fall, state education leaders expect to finish three years of work on an innovative school-finance reform measure that uses a ''resource cost model" to determine local district needs and state and local obligations to meet those needs. (See Education Week, Sept. 14, 1983.)

At that point, the state board will be prepared to submit the comprehensive package, which will touch virtually every aspect of the public schools, to the legislature--where its attempts to press for changes have thus far proved unsuccessful.

The reform agenda was deferred for this year when Mr. Gill told Gov. James R. Thompson last winter that the state board would not be ready with comprehensive proposals for the current legislative session. The Governor then announced his opposition to extending a temporary 20-percent income-tax increase enacted last year, a change that would eliminate potential revenues to finance school-reform measures.

Governor Thompson has since promised $250 million in new funding over three years if educators develop reform plans to earn it.

State board members have said they thought they were on the reform track a year ago until proposals for revamping state mandates were derailed by opposition from the state's teachers' unions.

Influential Lobby

Despite an expensive and generally acclaimed study of state curriculum mandates, the board lost two major legislative skirmishes in which it was opposed by teachers.

A board proposal to repeal the requirement that schools offer driver education and a plan to relax the mandate on physical education were buried in legislative subcommittees after the unions, particularly the Illinois Education Association, lobbied against them.

Then, despite the board's opposition, an iea measure tightening graduation requirements easily passed in the General Assembly and was signed by Governor Thompson.

With a large campaign bank account, thousands of willing and able election volunteers, and a political sophistication unsurpassed by any special-interest group, the iea is the single most influential organization affecting education legislation in the state, a variety of observers agrees.

"Teachers can have a significant positive effect on legislation," said Mr. Gill. "On issues where we differ, I wish they weren't quite so powerful."

After the twin defeats of 1983, the board retreated to map a new strategy. And in what could yet turn out to be a significant political coup, staff members for the board engineered the creation of a commission to examine the problems of Illinois education and propose solutions.

The Illinois Commission for Improvement of Elementary and Secondary Education began work last fall and is to report in January 1985 (pushed back from an original pre-election deadline) on its findings and recommendations for legislative action.

The 20-member commission, which is dominated by legislators and headed by the chairmen of the House and Senate education committees, has held several public hearings across the state. It is now in the early stages of deliberating over the issues raised by that testimony and the options its staff has raised for dealing with them.

Similar Views

The commission staff has been provided courtesy of the state board, and many of the options being considered closely parallel the direction the board has pursued toward reform.

For example, the commission is pondering one option that suggests "the state should explicitly state in law what it views as the primary purposes of schooling." That statement has been the foundation of the board's own effort to define what schools ought to do and its public argument that schools have strayed from their fundamental educational purpose.

In that vein, the commission is also considering a proposal to repeal mandates in schools that do not relate to the academic side of schooling.

The board recently underscored that premise by voting to seek legislation shifting responsibility for enforcing immunization and health requirements from the schools to public health departments.

Other options presented to the commission sound much like the state board's general goal of devising outcome statements governing each academic discipline and directing local districts to craft programs to meet the objectives and assess the results.

The commission has already given preliminary endorsement to some of the recommendations the board has approved relating to strengthening the educational leadership role of the principal. And it has also indicated support for boosting the salaries of beginning teachers to $20,000 over the next three years--a position also consistent with recent board action.

Competing Influences

Should the state board end up with an ally in the reform commission, it would have a strong field commander to push its agenda in Senator Arthur Berman, chairman of the Senate education panel; he is a respected leader on education matters and a Chicago Democrat well-connected to the legislature's power structure.

However, if the commission--which also includes the president of the iea--decides to go its own way, the state board is prepared to submit its own agenda to the General Assembly, staff members say.

The board wrote the first item on that agenda with its recent action on the superintendent's recommendations concerning education personnel. Mr. Gill's proposals include raising teachers' salaries (particu-larly those for starting teachers), offering scholarships for instructors in areas of academic shortage, encouraging business and industry to promote teacher development, stiffening standards in teacher-training programs, adopting a competency test for teacher certification, and strengthening school-district programs for teacher evaluation and staff development.

Reservations Voiced

But some obstacles are already beginning to emerge.

Reginald Weaver, president of the iea, called the recommendations "a healthy goal to pursue." Then he cautioned against concentrating on the salaries of beginning teachers while ignoring veteran instructors--a concern that helped shelve a similar plan in this year's legislative session.

Mr. Weaver also voiced reservations over the scholarship idea, worrying that it "has the potential to pit one field of expertise against another."

The board's proposals on educational outcomes are likely to be equally controversial. Union officials and legislators have indicated a desire to specify the number of hours, weeks, or semesters a particular course must be taught. But that notion runs counter to the outcomes concept, in which the goal is a stipulated level of proficiency in an academic area regardless of how much or how little time it takes a student to master a subject.

Recipients of categorical funding for such programs as bilingual or gifted education are also likely to complain that they are folded into the new finance formula instead of viewed as a separate category. Officials in affluent Chicago suburbs may protest that they are paying too much and receiving too little, while Chicago school leaders will probably argue that the formula does not compensate enough for the extra cost of educating disadvantaged youngsters.

Need for Support

There remains, moreover, the task of seeking public understanding and support.

That was the theme of a recent speech to a convention of Illinois school administrators by Michael J. Bakalis, former state school chief, ex-deputy undersecretary in the U.S. Education Department, and head of still another education-reform project in Illinois.

"The one key constant about educational change," Mr. Bakalis said, "is that most education reform has been add-on. It's been quantitative, in that things have been added to the existing curriculum. Something happens in society and the school responds--family living, black history, sex education. That is the easy way to reform. You please those constituencies asking for special-interest change."

Also difficult, Mr. Bakalis noted, will be overcoming resistance from a populace in which nearly three-quarters of adults do not have children in the public schools.

"There is no constituency out there for education," he said. "How do you go to the single mother with two kids in parochial school and ask her to support public education and she says, 'Why should I when my kids don't use the public school?' Or the 30-year-old single woman and she says, 'What's in it for me?' Or the 68-year-old husband and wife who say, 'We've already done that."'

Hostility Toward Young

Perhaps the greatest obstacle, according to Mr. Bakalis, will be countering what he sees as a growing societal hostility toward young people.

"There is something else that makes education reform difficult," he noted, "something that troubles me greatly." The increase in sexual and physical abuse of children, teen-age alcohol and drug abuse, exploitation of youths, and high teen-age unemployment all suggest that "our society has declared war on its children," he said.

"So it's not surprising that teachers are not given respect," he concluded. "Anyone who deals with kids is not given respect; it's not considered an important job."

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