Tony Sanders named next Illinois State Superintendent of Education

Springfield, IL capitol sits in the background of the photo, barely lit as the sky is dark blue. Buildings lining the road leading to the capitol building are brightly lit in the foreground of the photo.
Tony Sanders, Elgin’s U-46 superintendent, has been named as Illinois’ next state superintendent. His term starts later in February. (Denis Tangney Jr. / Getty Images)

This story has been updated.

Elgin’s U-46 Superintendent Tony Sanders has been named Illinois’ next State Superintendent of Education. He will begin his term on Feb. 23. 

Tony Sanders. (Courtesy of the Illinois State Board of Education)

After a nationwide search to replace outgoing superintendent Carmen Ayala who is retiring after 40 years in education, the Illinois State Board of Education announced Sanders’ appointment during a special board meeting on Tuesday. 

“Dr. Sanders’ breadth of experience as superintendent of School District U-46 and his entire background have prepared him to take on this role,” Gov. J.B. Pritzker said in a statement. “His focus on innovation, social emotional development, and academic excellence make him an extraordinary pick. I can think of no better person to lead the Illinois State Board of Education as we continue to invest in, support, and elevate our students and educators.”

Sanders has been superintendent of Elgin’s U-46 since 2014. It’s the second largest school district in Illinois serving over 35,000 students.

In a statement to U-46’s school community, Sanders said leaving the district is bittersweet because his family lives in the community, his children graduated from the district, and he enjoyed his time working with teachers and support staff who dedicated their time to improving the lives of students.

“While I have such a strong connection to U-46, I have always set my sights on serving in the role of state superintendent,” Sanders said in a statement. “It is the only position that I would consider leaving U-46 to accept, and the fact that I was selected is an honor that I cannot decline.”

As the next state superintendent, Sanders will be responsible for helping schools, educators, and students recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, especially as federal relief funds are expected to expire by 2025. The State Board of Education recently recommended a $350 million increase for the state’s evidence-based funding formula and a 10% increase to the board’s early education block grant. 

But education advocates have said that’s not enough. They want the state legislature to increase funding for K-12 schools by $550 million and increase early education funding by 20%. 

As U-46 superintendent, Sanders was a part of the push to enact the state’s evidence-based funding formula in 2017. That formula provides more money to districts if they serve higher percentages of students living in poverty, English language learners, or students with disabilities. About half of U-46 students are low-income, 40% are English language learners, and 16% are students with disabilities. 

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As  superintendent, Sanders managed U-46’s $660 million budget. Sue Kerr, president of U-46’s Board of Education, said in a statement that Sanders eliminated the district’s structural deficit and built up cash reserves.

Pritzker, who had a hand in selecting Sanders, recently promised to provide free preschool to all Illinois families in his second term. In Illinois, children are not required to attend school until age 6 and many districts, including U-46, only recently added full-day kindergarten. Sanders oversaw the 2016 rollout of a play-based, full-day kindergarten in Elgin, which the state board touted in announcing his appointment.   

Sanders comes to the state’s top education job at a time of great need. The COVID pandemic wiped away a decade of academic progress and left students, parents, and educators grappling with broader social and emotional issues beyond school. 

During Ayala’s time in office, the board of education added social-emotional learning hubs through the state’s regional offices of education and expanded high-impact tutoring to catch students up academically. As superintendent at U-46, Sanders created a new alternative high school to reduce expulsions and provide students with trauma-informed care. 

For a while, the state board seemed interested in overhauling how it measures academic progress, shifting from the annual state test at the end of the year, known as the Illinois Assessment of Readiness, to an interim assessment taken multiple times a year. 

That issue is still unresolved, but the State Assessment Review Committee presented a list of recommendations on improving the state assessment during this month’s board meeting. Ayala led the charge on this issue during her time in office. 

Over the past four years under Ayala’s direction, the State Board of Education has worked to increase the number of teachers throughout the state. While the state had a teacher shortage prior to COVID-19, the pandemic exacerbated the need for more teachers in classrooms. 

The state launched initiatives to get more bilingual teachers into classrooms and  increase the number of students of color in teacher preparation programs. Some school districts have invested in Grow Your Own programs that support new educators while they are getting licensure. 

During Sanders’ time as superintendent in U-46, he invested in the same program and the initiative supported 60 employees to receive full tuition reimbursement as they work on getting a license. 

Kerr, president of U-46’s Board of Education, said in a statement that the district’s board of education will deeply miss Sanders.

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“He has been active in numerous community organizations, has been a constant presence in school buildings, and districtwide events, and has never hesitated to reach out to state legislators and the media to advocate on U-46’s behalf,” Kerr said. 

One of the state’s largest teacher unions, the Illinois Federation of Teachers, congratulated Sanders in a statement and said they hope to work with him to “achieve policies that center and engage our students and teachers, especially our Black and Brown students who are still recovering from the pandemic.”

“During Dr. Sanders’ tenure leading Elgin District U-46, he was a strong advocate for equitable policies for Black and Brown students,” said Dan Montgomery, president of IFT. “His visionary leadership helped improve district assessment data collection to better the student and teacher experience.” 

Until Sanders begins his term as superintendent, Krish Mohip, the State Board of Education’s deputy education officer, will serve as interim state superintendent starting  Feb. 1. 

Samantha Smylie is the state education reporter for Chalkbeat Chicago, covering school districts across the state, legislation, special education, and the state board of education. Contact Samantha at ssmylie@chalkbeat.org.

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