Crisis-Tested, Spagnolo Pursues Accountability
Seemingly oblivious to the thickening blanket of snow rapidly covering the stretch of flat, straight highway ahead, Illinois state Superintendent Joseph A. Spagnolo Jr. has the floor.
His stage? The back seat of a Ford Taurus station wagon.
His audience? Two education department aides and a reporter.
The subject? Standards-based education reform and heightened accountability--specifically, what they mean in Illinois.
It's just another day in the life of the 54-year-old schools chief, who was hired by the state board of education in 1994 to develop and implement standards-based academic reform and a statewide accountability system, all of which will be in place by spring of next year.
As he is driven from Springfield farther downstate to Madison, Ill., for a conference with local superintendents on the new role the state is playing in their schools, the mild-mannered educator is waxing philosophical on the evolving role of education.
"In my view, standards-based reform is imperative. But everyone--students on up--is required to work harder. And everyone is accountable," Mr. Spagnolo says.
The schools chief, who came to Illinois after serving as the state superintendent of public instruction in Virginia, has ushered in strict new academic standards and imposed a high-stakes assessment to measure school performance. The lowest-rated schools, based on average scores on the Illinois Goals Assessment Program, or IGAP, are placed on the state's new "warning list"--a list Mr. Spagnolo will spend the next few hours of this winter day defending against critical school leaders with one or more schools on the list.
Schools on the warning list must produce improvement plans, for which they receive technical and other support from the state education department. Schools on the list for more than two years are moved to the state's academic "watch list" and, after two more years, face state takeover.
Last year, in the midst of working to raise the academic bar for students, Mr. Spagnolo faced an accountability crisis of his own. He came under fire after a state audit revealed instances of sloppy accounting and mismanagement at the 800-employee agency the schools chief oversees. ("Audit Questions Oversight of Ill. Education Agency," March 26, 1997.)
In the wake of the widely publicized audit came calls for Mr. Spagnolo's ouster. Some of his detractors in Springfield, the state capital, portrayed the education department as mired in chaos. They charged that the superintendent lacked the management skills to lead the education agency and manage its $4.6 billion annual budget.
"I don't know of any agency in the state that has stumbled more often in the last few years," said Rep. Douglas Hoeft, a Republican on the House education committee and a former public school teacher and administrator. "I'm not in the business of blaming, but I will say there's an obvious problem of a lack of accountability" at the education department.
Rep. Hoeft characterized the state audit of the department as "the worst in Illinois history" and said it has eroded trust among lawmakers and their constituents.
Rep. Hoeft and other critics say that Gov. Jim Edgar's recent proposal to scrap the appointed state school board and replace it with a Cabinet-level education department in 2000 is a response to the agency's problems. The Republican governor's chief of staff, Allen D. Grossboll, denied this, saying the governor "gets along with and respects Mr. Spagnolo and members of the school board."
Under the plan, the schools chief would report directly to the governor instead of to the board.
Mr. Spagnolo came to Illinois, which has nearly 2 million students, after spending 17 years as the superintendent of schools in Lynchburg, Va., and four years as Virginia's state schools chief, where he oversaw roughly 1 million students.
Some insiders say that the superintendent's outsider status sometimes works against him in a state as politically complex as Illinois, where lawmakers from Chicago, its affluent suburbs, and more-depressed downstate regions regularly square off over both money and policy.
But prominent allies have defended Mr. Spagnolo and the work he and the board have accomplished, and all seem to have weathered the storm.
"Joe was brought to the state as an agent of change, and he's brought good things to schools while maintaining local control," said Sen. Dan Cronin, the Republican chairman of his chamber's education committee. "Were there some legitimate problems brought to light in the audit? You bet. But I think Joe will readily admit that he's more interested in learning and student achievement--what actually happens in the classroom--than the nuts and bolts of managing a state agency."
The state's nine-member school board showed unwavering support throughout the controversy. According to board Chairman Louis Mervis, it never considered firing Mr. Spagnolo, and it voted unanimously last September to raise his salary 7 percent, to $137,000. The board will decide this spring whether to extend Mr. Spagnolo's contract, which expires in July 1999.
Harry Litchfield, a two-term state school board member from Coal Valley, a small town near the Iowa border, and the manager of training and development at the Moline-based Deere & Co., said he had "absolutely nothing negative to say about Joe."
"Prior to him, we had no long-term strategy for schools," Mr. Litchfield asserted. "He's done an excellent job staying above the fray and forging ahead with reform. He's brought dramatic changes to schools, which is exactly what the board asked him to do."
"He's a visionary when it comes to education," added Sandra Pelligrino, a state school board member from Peoria since 1995 and a retired lawyer. "Yes, he's gotten some flak for administrative things, but as I perceive it, he inherited a lot of problems. And when he came aboard, he was asked to do everything--management of the department and the implementation of education reform. It's a lot for one person."
Mr. Spagnolo acknowledges that the audit's findings were serious, but adds that none of the accounting mistakes were egregious, intentional, or illegal. And last spring, after vowing to tighten controls at the agency, he hired Robert Mandeville, formerly the state budget director, to oversee day-to-day operations.
"I was not that surprised" by the criticism, Mr. Spagnolo said recently. "Education is the most important and most political entity in the state. And while we were bashed on the one hand, on the other we were given a steady stream of more things to do. I just kept my head down and stayed focused on the objectives."
Mr. Spagnolo's above-the-fray attitude has won praise from some quarters, but has drawn criticism from others.
Robert B. Haisman, the president of the Illinois Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association, laments that the schools chief is not more of a political activist. In particular, Mr. Haisman complained that Mr. Spagnolo showed "too little passion" for Gov. Edgar's ambitious school-funding-reform bill last spring. ("Ill. Lawmakers Duck Vow To Revamp Funding," June 11, 1997.)
"We like many of the things he has done for schools," Mr. Haisman said of Mr. Spagnolo. "But he was absent when it came time to push hard for funding reform."
For his part, Mr. Spagnolo said he "fully supported" the governor through his bid to change the state's property-tax reliant school funding formula. Ultimately, the measure passed during a special session in December. The plan kept the state's basic funding formula in tact but committed more than $600 million in new state dollars to public schools. ("New Illinois Law Swells Funding for State's Poorer School Districts," Dec. 10, 1997.)
And, despite a smooth demeanor and penchant for conservative blue suits, Mr. Spagnolo insists that he works hard to stay out of the political loop, however futile that effort may be.
"For one reason or another, people will be critical," he said. "It can be frustrating, but," he added, "all's fair in love, war, and politics."