Ashley Cullen-Williams used to be a high school guidance counselor in Waukegan, Illinois. Students knew her as “Mrs. Snacks” because she had cereal, granola bars, and other treats for those who didn’t get breakfast at home.
Cullen-Williams noticed a significant amount of the school’s money never reached students or classrooms.
“A lot of funding gets diverted or allocated to other things before students’ immediate needs are considered. Students need to be well in order to excel at life. Students need access to supportive environments, quality connections, and college and career opportunities,” she said.
In 2022, teacher and administrator pensions will take up 40% of K-12 spending, up from 12% in 2000. Subtract general administrative costs, and too little is left for students’ needs.
Pension and administrative costs are both driven up by Illinois’ disproportionately high number of school districts – 852 total. As a result, Illinois spends more on general administration costs than any other state, except for New Hampshire. Illinois’ $631 per pupil spending on district administration is more than double the national average as of 2019.
And the ability to merge districts, without closing any schools, is evident when 46% of Illinois school districts serve just one or two schools.
State Rep. Rita Mayfield, D-Waukegan, saw this trend, and introduced the Classrooms First Act in 2019. The bill establishes a commission that makes recommendations for consolidating school districts, but the changes only happen when approved by voters in each district impacted.
The Classrooms First Act was passed unanimously by an Illinois House committee, and has had sponsors on both sides of the aisle. State lawmakers should again consider this proposal to put more state money where it can best help students succeed.
The commission makes no final decisions, and only recommends consolidation to each school district. Local voters make the decisions, with the requirement that voters in both districts agree to mergers. During hearings at each district, teachers, parents and students can all share their opinions.
The bill prohibits the commission from recommending school closures or mergers. Only district-level bureaucracy could be consolidated.
By consolidating districts, Illinois could dedicate more funding to basic student needs. Those would be the same needs Cullen-Williams fought for as a counselor.
“The whole student needs to be supported and funded in order to see growth. We have to acknowledge, accept, and highlight their culture and ways their education can further push their community forward,” she said. “We can’t just focus on if they’re behaving well or if they score high on the SAT. That doesn’t matter if their basic needs aren’t being met and those skills can’t translate over to real, tangible possibilities.”
Illinois Policy: https://www.illinoispolicy.org/pritzker-seeks-end-to-hiring-oversight-as-watchdog-details-more-patronage/