Education funding needs to get away from property taxes, school curricula should be decided at the national level and teachers should be paid better.
These are among the recommendations in a report released this week by The Equity and Excellence Commission -- a federally chartered group of about 30 education experts that has been working for almost two years to recommend changes to the funding and delivery of education.
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Torres only superintendent chosen for national panelJosé Torres acknowledges he and his fellow equity and excellence commissioners came together two years ago with more than a bit of skepticism.
"All of us came in thinking, 'Well, what is another report going to do for America,'" said Torres, superintendent of Elgin Area School District U-46 and the only sitting superintendent selected from among 15,000 school districts nationwide for the federal education commission.
About 30 education experts -- from universities, national nonprofits and teachers unions -- spent almost two years debating the state of U.S. education. Torres said it was hard work but about 18 months in, they began to see a light at the end of the tunnel.
Their report was modeled after the one commissioned by former President Ronald Reagan, A Nation at Risk, which lambasted the education system as it was in 1983 and provided a host of strategies to fix it. Many of those recommendations have yet to be implemented.
But Torres said the commission bridged the ideological spectrum to outline new strategies for the future of K-12 education and to strengthen early learning, though some of the recommendations were repeated from 1983.
The centerpiece of the new report is an overhaul of education finance, and a key theme is equity.
The language of the report and its focus on equity mirrors the language of U-46's accountability plan, which prioritizes closing the racial/ethnic achievement gap. U-46 students come from more than 60 different cultures, and the largest city in its boundaries, Elgin, boasts a Latino population of almost 44 percent.
Torres said the issue of equity comes down to fairness and can be illustrated by a story of two 4-year-olds: one who cannot write the alphabet and another who already knows how to read.
"Equity would demand the 4-year-old that doesn't recognize the letter get something different from the kid who can pick up a book and read it," Torres said.
And while he wasn't the reason the commission's report focused so much on the same principles he touts for U-46, Torres said the correlation does show the district is on par with the best thinking in education.
"In that sense," he said, "I feel validated."
The commission brought together a diverse group of scholars and leaders in education from across the country, including Elgin Area School District U-46 Superintendent José Torres. While they didn't agree on every detail tied to solutions, the group outlined the underlying problems in U.S. education and identified concrete policy recommendations to address them.
The driving force behind the commission's recommendations is equity -- a closing of the achievement gap that means all students, of all ethnicities and economic backgrounds, get a quality education.
The commission's focus includes:
• Relying less on property taxes to fund schools.
• Enhancing government accountability and federal input
• Increasing teacher pay, incentives, preparation and support
• Closing the achievement gap by dedicating more resources to high-poverty communities
The commission advocates far less reliance on local property taxes and more on state and federal sources. In Vermont, according to the report, more than 85 percent of school funding comes from the state -- compared to 40 percent in Illinois.
That could mean less-than-desired changes to school districts like Barrington Area Unit District 200, which gets relatively little state funding.
Superintendent Tom Leonard said District 220 voters have approved higher tax rates over the years that ensured that arts, music and Advanced Placement extras were offered.
If all districts were funded uniformly from statewide resources, Leonard said, the programs could be put in jeopardy.
"I'm proud of the programs we have," Leonard said. "I want them to stay in place, but I also believe that those programs would be wonderful in other parts of the state."
The commission also suggests more federal say in state and local education decisions. Local control, the report said, has helped tailor initiatives to the circumstances in particular districts, but it has greatly added to differing outcomes across the country.
"Local authority will inevitably remain substantial," the report said, "but it should operate within a clearer, stronger framework that aligns local decisions with state policies and with national commitments to equity and excellence."
Torres, of U-46, said that shift to more federal control -- an ever-controversial proposition -- has already happened. A revised, more rigorous rubric for identifying students who meet or exceed standards on the Illinois Standards Achievement Test is a direct result of President Obama's key education initiative, Race to the Top, Torres said. Details of the new scoring were made public last week.
"That's federal involvement at the classroom level," Torres said. "It's already here."
He added most countries doing better than the U.S. have federal curricula, not local education programs.
National comparisons are woven throughout the commission's report, including in a section on high-quality instruction. When it comes to teachers, the report notes that other countries offer better pay, more professional development, free higher education, greater opportunities for collaboration with other teachers and more teacher planning time.
The commission recommends putting the best teachers in front of the students who need them most, suggesting incentives to better distribute educators. And it suggests holding accountable all those who impact education -- not just students and teachers, but policymakers and administrators, too, by controlling access to federal funds.
Linda Chapa LaVia, a state representative in Aurora's 83rd District, serves on several committees for education and is enthusiastic about many of the commission's recommendations. Chapa LaVia, a former Army officer, said education has become a political football but the need for reform is imperative when it comes to our competitiveness with other countries.
"The money we put in defense, we should be putting that serious money in education too," Chapa LaVia said.
Many of the commission's recommendations included new grants, federal loan programs and the like. The question now for Chapa LaVia is whether federal lawmakers will sit down to the table to fund them.