This is a very exciting time for education, and yet a very difficult time. We have seen some of the most incredible changes in education ever take place in a very short period, changes that will benefit our students and our state for decades to come.
Illinois schools are in the process of adopting some of the most rigorous learning standards, aimed at preparing students to compete globally. Schools are also moving toward new teacher evaluation systems based on student growth, and we're working to develop new technologies to better individualize instruction, because no two students learn the same.
These are also very difficult times. The state is delayed months in making most payments, and districts are being forced to make very difficult choices about who will be laid off or what programs must be eliminated. Over the past three years education funding in Illinois has been reduced by $650 million. That's staggering, but this year could be even worse.
The Illinois House of Representatives has established spending caps for the coming fiscal year that would cut education by nearly $260 million. This is a deep cut for education, but it is built upon the assumption that the state will be able to cut $2.7 billion from Medicaid, the state's program for providing health care to the poor. If the cuts to Medicaid can't be accomplished, education could be reduced an additional $500 million, or more, from last year's spending.
In addition, the governor and leaders in the General Assembly are considering ways to stabilize pensions for teachers and state employees. We know that pointing fingers about the past will not accomplish anything. Pensions must be dealt with or they may simply run out of money to pay retirees. Bond houses are warning that unless action is taken to stabilize the pension system the state's credit rating will be downgraded, making it more expensive to borrow for any projects in the future.
These are difficult conversations to have, but necessary ones. Lawmakers are being asked to make very difficult choices from among very worthwhile causes. However, inaction is not an option. Education is the economic lifeline for our state. It's our future. If we don't adequately fund our elementary and secondary public school systems now, Illinois' future is grim. Illinois is already at the bottom of states in support of education. We can't sit by and watch it get worse; in fact, we have to fight to make it better, Our children deserve nothing less.
• Gery J. Chico is chairman of the Illinois State Board of Education.