School funding, pensions, pre-K: Here are 8 education issues J.B. Pritzker will face as governor

Steinmetz High School in northwest Chicago, where Emily Jade Aguilar graduated last year, had just four school counselors. In a school of more than 1,200 students, that simply wasn’t enough.

“We need more mental health resources in our schools,” said Aguilar, who spent Election Day knocking on doors with Voices of Youth in Chicago Education, “to have at least a safe space for 15 or 30 minutes where I could let someone know what is going on.”

Aguilar is 19, identifies as a trans woman, and voted for the first time on Tuesday. She has a clear demand for Illinois’ new governor, billionaire businessman J.B. Pritzker: more funding for counselors, social workers and art therapy programs to help young people deal with the trauma and difficulty of navigating their lives in Chicago.

If Pritzker doesn’t deliver, Aguilar said, he’ll hear from her and other Chicago students. “I want to tell the governor he should be ready to pay attention to us,” she said.

Now that the victory speeches have ended and the confetti has been swept away, Pritzker faces a host of critical public education issues, from the mental health needs of students and teachers, to a dire educator shortage, to finding the funding required to help the state’s struggling districts.

And while local decision makers still wield a lot of power, the governor holds the purse strings. Pritzker will have plenty of influence beyond appointing the five members of the State Board of Education whose terms expire in January.

Here are eight issues that advocates and education policy experts are hoping to put on his to-do list.

Closing the K-12 funding gap

Pritzker’s most ambitious task will be getting the state’s fiscal house in order. That includes raising enough money to close the $6.8 billion gap between what Illinois spends on K-12 education and what it should be spending while contending with a general backlog of bills that has topped $7 billion.

Ralph Martire, executive director of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, said creative ways to generate revenue, such as legalizing marijuana, might help some, but won’t be enough. While Pritzker’s vision of a progressive income would take years — and a state referendum — to realize, Martire would like to see Pritzker push other measures, such as expanding the sales tax to consumer services, or simulating a progressive income tax by hiking taxes on wealthy residents while offering tax credits to middle- and low-income families.

But, Martire said, “job No. 1 is refinancing the pension debt.” In the last legislative session, lawmakers from both parties strongly supported refinancing the debt. Pritzker could lead on the issue as early as spring if he decides to, Martire said.

“The main thing the governor can do is utilize his post as a bully pulpit.”

Fixing the eroding child care assistance program

A state program that provides affordable child care to low-income, working families is losing children and providers. Early child care advocates like Maria Whelan, of Illinois Action for Children, say the governor’s office urgently needs to shore up that effort, while surfacing longer-term solutions such as more resources and better coordination within all of the state government agencies responsible for the state’s youngest — and most vulnerable — citizens.

“We are only reaching a teeny percent of youngest citizens in our state,” said Whelan, who wants to push Pritzker to create a cabinet-level early childhood office with real authority. “We have a huge way to go.”

A benefactor of some leading early childhood advocacy organizations in the state and nation, Pritzker has pledged to expand birth-to-3 programs and pave a path for universal pre-K statewide for 3- and 4-year-olds.

Enrollment has dropped across Illinois in programs that serve 3- and 4-year-olds. At the same time, there has been growth in publicly funded care for infants and toddlers.

Tackling racial gaps in education

Black and Latinos, as well as English language learners, continue to fall behind their white peers in critical metrics such as graduation rate and performance on the college entrance exam SAT. Across the state, for example, nearly half of white students met or exceeded state standards on the English language portion of the SAT, while only 13.8 percent of black students and 22 percent of Hispanic students did.

A new state ratings system tied to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act can penalize schools where one group of students struggles compared with their peers. But the first batch of ratings have left some educators scratching their heads, since a single metric can plunge an otherwise average school into a lower performance category, triggering state intervention. Some insiders question if Pritzker will push to revisit the state’s plan for ESSA, as the federal program is known, with an eye toward tweaking the ratings system.  

Building a better relationship between the state and Chicago schools

The relationship between the governor’s office and Chicago Public Schools has often devolved into a rhetorical boxing match, despite the symbiotic relationship between the largest city in the Midwest and the state that houses it.

State Rep. Sonya Harper, a Democrat from Chicago, said she wants the new governor to build a solid relationship with the city’s new mayor and show he cares about city schools, “to make sure schools were funded equitably and more transparently.”  

Harper said she hoped the governor would be in “full support” of an elected school board in Chicago — an idea that Pritzker has said he supports.

Beyond that, Harper said the governor needs to show he cares about and is knowledgeable about issues like school closings, charter school expansion, and what happens with Chicago schools’ special education program and the state monitoring efforts there.

“A governor up to date on those issues is the governor we need,” she said.

Figuring out next steps for school choice

In 2017, Illinois introduced a new private school scholarship funded by independent tax credits. Pritzker has said he does not support the program, but it is not clear whether he would cap it or eliminate it entirely. Thousands of families rely on the program to pay their bills at private schools across the state.

Pritzker also has said he would support a moratorium on charters, but spoke favorably of the idea of school districts having a school choice portfolio. Good charters, he told Chalkbeat Chicago, are “worthy of support.”

Building out a more robust special education monitor’s office 

Chris Yun, an educational policy analyst with the disabilities rights group Access Living of Metropolitan Chicago, said that the governor should marshal more resources for the independent state monitor overseeing Chicago’s special education program. A state investigation earlier this year found the district routinely delayed and denied students services in violation of their rights.

Yun’s group and various advocate organizations have been working with the state since the inquiry was announced. She said the advocates asked for a robust six-person office to monitor schools and attend the regular parent meetings mapping out each child’s lessons, but instead got one monitor and several part-time support staff. Mandatory letters and guidelines for receiving compensatory services have reached parents only slowly.

“I find their speed very unsatisfactory and disappointing,” Yun said.

Addressing a dire teacher shortage

The state board recently released a report sounding the alarm over a growing teacher shortage, particularly among bilingual and special education teachers and also in rural areas. But solving it will take creative approaches, said Dan Montgomery, president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers.

“It’s not just Chicago — it’s the suburbs, it’s downstate. And we can’t talk about the teacher shortage without talking about the conditions” that are putting pressure on the profession, he said, from low wages compared with other professions to limiting pension benefits for new hires.

The shortage is critical, too, in early childhood care and education, said Ireta Gasner, vice president of Illinois policy at the Ounce of Prevention. Before Pritzker can realize his vision of a universal pre-K system, he’ll have to figure out how to recruit more people to staff centers and programs. That will start with better compensation. Child care providers generally earn less than their K-12 counterparts, and the profession tends to see high turnover.

Confronting poverty

One in three Illinois children grows up in a household that is within 200 percent of the federal poverty line.

“We all have to double down to make sure we’re not excluding kids who face the most challenges,” said Gasner of the Ounce of Prevention.  

Improvement could mean freeing up more funding that districts could use for social workers and counselors — as Emily Jade Aguilar, the student, advocates. Or tackling broader economic issues, such as jobs and housing.

“School is one of the main interactions young people have,” said another Chicago schools graduate, Juan Padilla, who, like Aguilar, attended Steinmetz College Prep.

As the new governor assembles a transition team and plots out the first 100 days of his administration, Pritzker will have to wrestle with plenty of immediate challenges. But education policy experts and young people said they plan to keep calling attention to issues faced by schools and youth around the state.

As the beaming governor-elect said in his victory speech on Tuesday, “These are the things we stand and fight for.”