Chafed by what he sees as a perpetual lack of support for the
state's public schools, the chairman of the Illinois board of education
has taken an unorthodox step to build interest and financial help for
K-12 institutions: He is launching his own foundation.
Ron Gidwitz, in his fourth year on the panel, has formed Students First Illinois, a not-for-profit corporation aimed at fostering grassroots support for precollegiate education.
Established Feb. 28, the foundation begins its push as the state of Illinois is roiled by one of the worst fiscal crises in recent memory. As a result, school districts are firing scores of employees, declaring financial emergencies, and beseeching local voters for more tax support. And no end to the pain is in sight. ("Illinois Districts Using Red Ink to Pen Budgets," Nov. 6, 2002.)
"We need to get an outpouring of concern expressed in a voice the legislature will understand," said Mr. Gidwitz, a former chief executive officer of the Helene Curtis cosmetics company. "We know of the [district problems] that have attracted attention, but there are more to come."
The foundation will provide information to the public about the benefits of spending more money on education, solicit financial backing from corporations and individuals, and award grants to organizations and individuals supporting schools.
New budget woes seem to mount by the week for Illinois' schools. Two weeks ago, officials in Unit School District 46 of Elgin, northwest of Chicago, announced plans to lay off 1,700 of the system's 5,600 employees. Some of those workers may be hired back in the months ahead, though, a district spokesman said.
Mr. Gidwitz acknowledges that taking on a direct advocacy role is unusual for a member of a state board of education, but he sees no conflict with his public duties. The Illinois panelists are appointed to four-year terms by the governor. Mr. Gidwitz was appointed by former GOP Gov. George Ryan.
Raising overall support for K-12 education, not pushing for specific funding solutions, is the foundation's goal, according to Mr. Gidwitz. Some education advocates in Illinois say the time has come to overhaul the way the state pays for schools by reducing reliance on property taxes and boosting direct state funding.
"The legislature is the one that ultimately has the final say," Mr. Gidwitz said. "I'm not interested in telling them what to do."
Vol. 22, Issue 27, Page 15Published in Print: March 19, 2003, as State Journal