The Illinois State Board of Education -- An Easy Target

Thursday, February 12, 2004

By Peter LaBarbera,
Executive Director of Illinois Family Institute

The governor's plan, which would require legislative approval, virtually kills off the existing independent ISBE and, in its stead, creates a cabinet-level Department of Education which would operate under the governor's office.

Finding fault with the existing Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) is almost too easy. After all, on its watch hundreds of thousands of Illinois students have been attending schools branded with a "failing" label -- too often an accurate description of schools that are failing to teach children even the most basic of academic knowledge and skills. But keeping this agency around, while attempting to improve and streamline its function, may be the best hope for making real improvement in the education opportunities offered to Illinois families.

The question right now, however, is not how to improve the ISBE, but whether a new state education agency -- under the almost-total control of Gov. Rod Blagojevich -- is likely to do any better.

The governor has proposed such a plan, not based on promises of education improvement, safer schools or higher levels of student achievement, but with the hope that by combining the purchases of commodities like school supplies, health insurance and other services used by the schools, the operation costs at districts around the state might be reduced.

The governor's plan, which would require legislative approval, virtually kills off the existing independent ISBE and, in its stead, creates a cabinet-level Department of Education which would operate under the governor's office.

Over the coming weeks, Illinois lawmakers are going to be asked to consider the Blagojevich proposal, but before they give their stamp of approval, there are a number of serious questions that need to be explored. Those questions include:

1) Where is the evidence that this move -- which all but eliminates an agency mandated by the Illinois Constitution -- will improve education in any way?

The governor has been careful to pointedly avoid any promises that student achievement will improve. Other than a projected savings of roughly $250 million -- a mere drop in the state's education bucket -- no promises have been made.

Even a member of the governor's own party, state Sen. Miguel del Valle (D-Chicago), who chairs the Senate Education Committee, wrote of the governor's plan, "Before this train speeds away from the station, we need to slow down a little to fully consider the many implications of the governor's plan."

He challenges his fellow lawmakers to "separate education fact from statistical fiction."

2) How would this reshuffling of authority impact compliance with federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) requirements?

This federal law, while not perfect, is the closest thing yet to real accountability for Illinois public schools -- accountability that currently is administered through the ISBE and its testing mechanisms. Will a new Illinois education authority request waivers from required improvements, time to 'retool' tests and procedures, and other delays in rescuing children from a system that too-often isn't working?

If the ISATs (Illinois Standards Achievement Tests), which replaced the rejected IGAP (Illinois Goals Achievement Program) exams, are once again scrapped in favor of another state testing tool, then any existing measurements of school improvement are out the window -- losing any semblance of education accountability until a new score trend can be established.

That very likely scenario would allow the existing Illinois public education monopoly to 'skate' for a few more years -- years when higher and higher NCLB achievement requirements, and the accompanying pressure to improve, would have put a failing system on the hot seat and force to consider real reform.

3) Is this plan tailored to serve the interests of the teachers unions and other entrenched education interests, or the families of Illinois?

The state's most powerful teachers unions -- the Illinois Education Association (IEA) and the Illinois Federation of Teachers (IFT) -- reportedly had a heavy hand in developing the governor's education plan, and more than one observer has noted that these unions would have more-leverage-than-ever in a Blagojevich Department of Education. Given the fact that the IEA and its national counterpart have organized opposition to many of the accountability provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act -- and actively oppose all avenues of school choice -- a state education agency under their sway would likely mean an even more hostile climate for charter schools, home schooling and other private schools, voucher proposals and other forms of education freedom.

Also a serious concern is whether an even more powerful union might be in a position to enforce more of its radical social agenda, including pro-homosexual advocacy and an anti-abstinence-education stance -- positions which may be 'politically correct,' but which are morally abhorrent to many Illinois families.


Illinois Family Institute supports the belief that the best hope for education improvement in Illinois lies in a competitive education marketplace -- fueled by true school choice and the education freedom it brings. The clearest pathway to making that school choice a reality in Illinois is the mounting pressure on the ISBE and the schools under its leadership to meet steadily rising achievement standards set by federal law. Any reorganization that gets in the way of that process is bad for Illinois families and a hindrance to the ultimate and urgent goal of improving education across the state.

In the meantime, the ISBE is not a runaway agency operating outside of reasonable control. Under current law, the governor holds the power to appoint members of the ISBE and the Illinois General Assembly controls the ISBE's purse strings -- giving both the executive and legislative branches of Illinois government the opportunity to shape Illinois education policy without controlling its operation or muddying the waters with the kinds of political concerns that have already surrounded the governor's proposal.

Peter LaBarbera is executive director of the Illinois Family Institute (, based in Glen Ellyn. He can be reached at



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