Illinois schools superintendent is out in latest Pritzker staff change

Thursday is state Superintendent of Education Tony Smith’s last day, he said in a public statement. Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s administration has not yet named a replacement.

“This role is my ikigai, the intersection of purpose, family, and service,” Smith wrote, using a Japanese word for “reason of being.” He sent out the announcement Tuesday in the weekly superintendent newsletter, saying his contract wasn’t extended by the new governor.

“I fully inhabited this opportunity, pushing for changes in policy and practice that strengthen the whole child, whole school, and whole community and it has been an honor,” he continued.  

During his tenure as superintendent, Smith oversaw a seismic shift in state school funding by directing state funds to the neediest districts. Passed in 2017, the formula aimed to equalize funding between high- and  low-income districts. The state allocated funds based on the gap between school district needs and resources. While the formula was written into law, the state still struggles to fully fund the new formula.

However, some criticized Smith for his efforts to remake the annual standardized tests that state students take. After years of school administrator complaints about over-testing and long tests, Illinois announced last year that it would drop PARCC and find a new test.

The state’s new standardized test is expected to resemble PARCC in content and format.

“That is a big disappointment,” said Cassandra Creswell, a board member of Raise Your Hand Action, a public education advocacy group.

Gov. Bruce Rauner appointed Smith to his education transition team in the fall of 2014, and by April 2015 he was named superintendent of the Illinois State Board of Education. Foreshadowing that the end of his tenure was near, Smith’s name was notably missing from a 35-person advisory group Pritzker formed to craft his education agenda.

While Smith’s contract will expire on Thursday, he said he would remain at the state board and help prepare for the next board meeting Feb. 20.

Before becoming state superintendent, Smith had worked as superintendent of the Oakland Unified School District in California, where he oversaw a district emerging from state financial control amid a $25 million budget deficit. Smith was also the first superintendent in Oakland to resign of his own accord in 50 years.