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Illinois Vaults to the Head of the Class in Race to the Top Competition

03/22/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

On Tuesday, Illinois submitted its application for the "Race to the Top" competition, a federal initiative designed by Arne Duncan and financed by what could easily be termed a $4.3 billion education slush fund.

When Congress passed the stimulus last spring, it gave the secretary of education some discretionary money in the hopes that he could use it to reward outside-of-the-box thinking. So instead of using the money to simply create a few new programs, Duncan wielded his billions more skillfully, challenging cash-starved states to make major accountability-oriented reforms as a prerequisite to winning some much-needed federal dollars. In response to the challenge, our leaders here in Illinois have done something that we've forgotten they could: rise to it.

Last June, the legislature lifted its cap on charter schools, doubling the number allowed in the state from 60 to 120. The Illinois State Board of Education started developing plans to create the capacity to takeover failing schools. And just last week, the governor's office and the state board of education brokered deals to allow teacher data to be used in evaluating students and to dramatically expand alternative-certification programs.

For a sense of how fundamental the reforms are, consider what the two most recent pieces of legislation accomplish.

The first, which is receiving far more attention, would allow Illinois to become one of the largest states that allows for the use of student-achievement data to be used in determining how effective teachers are, a titanic shift that for the first time aligns student outcomes with a teacher's professional advancement. The reform is particularly impressive when one considers that some of Illinois' peer states -- like New York -- prohibit local school districts from using such data in evaluating teachers.

The second, less prominent piece of legislation would help open up the teaching profession by allowing alt-cert programs to increase their impact in the state. Programs like the Chicago Teaching Fellows and Teach for America, which hopes to one day expand to East St. Louis, are currently capped at 260 to 300 teachers per year, an artificial constraint that will now be lifted entirely. The new law would also allow alt-cert programs to issue their own teacher licenses. Currently, these programs must partner with existing education schools, which grant the licenses on their behalf.

The state board of education is also developing a process to shutter underperforming schools, the final reform that Race to the Top has pushed states to adopt. Though the state board already has the authority to take over failing schools, it lacks the capacity given that it is overburdened with its current responsibilities. The plan on the table is that the board will partner with the affected district and some outside organization, much as the Chicago Public Schools currently does.

If these accomplishments weren't impressive enough, consider one more fact: all of these reforms were pushed through with significant buy-in from the state's much-maligned teachers unions.

Take the legislation that passed last week on using student-achievement data in evaluating teachers. Not only did the more reform-minded Illinois Education Association bless the bill, but the Illinois Federation of Teachers -- which includes the Chicago Teachers Union -- backed the evaluation component of the bill as well. (The IFT did oppose the overall legislation due to an unrelated issue regarding the privacy of the teacher evaluations.) On the legislation to expand alt-cert in the state, both unions got on board -- even though the IFT had expressed reservations about the idea when it was first considered during last November's veto session.

Robin Steans, executive director of the pro-reform Advance Illinois, said that the collaborative nature of the process here "sets Illinois apart" from other states participating in the Race to the Top competition.

"The process brought all the key stakeholders together," Steans said. "Unions, management, state leadership and the advocate community all signed on, seeing a need to improve how we evaluate and give feedback to our teachers."

Which public officials deserve credit for pushing the reforms through the often-sclerotic General Assembly?

For starters, Illinois State Board of Education chief Christopher Koch and Governor Pat Quinn, whose "herculean efforts," as one pro-reform lobbyist termed them, were crucial to the bills that reform teacher evaluations and expand alt-cert programs. (I've previously been critical of Quinn's education record, and I'm happy to learn that he's done more than I thought.) Several legislators -- notably Senator Kimberly Lightford of Maywood, Representative Linda Chapa-LaVia of Aurora, and Senator James Meeks of Chicago -- deserve a large amount of credit as well.

Of course, there remains work to do -- work that will continue long after the federal money comes in, and long after it is spent. The teacher-evaluation system now goes to administrative review, where the details of how it will work will be fleshed out. The state board's proposal for closing failing schools currently exists only on paper, and outside organizations must be found who can partner with the board and the district to take over failing schools. And there remain, of course, the perennial issues related to the underfunding of schools, something that will only change with serious tax reform.

But the fact is that, due to a flurry of legislative and administrative activity, Illinois is among the best-positioned states to win Race to the Top funds -- as much as $400 million. And for that, our leaders in Springfield ought to hear something they seldom do: they've done Illinois proud.

[An earlier version of this piece contained an incomplete list of the legislative sponsors.]