Illinois Is Proving any State Can Change its Schools

A dozen or so leading citizens, backed by local and national philanthropy, put Illinois on this path to becoming a national leader in education reform.
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As Illinois Senate Bill 7 awaits the governor's signature, education advocates in other states are looking closely at how Illinois was able to pass one of the strongest education reform bills in the country and wondering what it might take to do the same. SB 7 would make student performance a factor in educator hiring, evaluations, tenure, and layoffs and allow Chicago's new mayor to lengthen his city's school day.

Illinois' approach is especially noteworthy compared to its neighbor, Wisconsin. While Wisconsin's governor put forth legislation to accomplish similar ends, he also included a poison pill for the state's unions that seriously curtailed collective bargaining rights. Now, as Wisconsin's leaders are distracted from the work of improving its schools by a wave of recall elections for the senators who backed Gov. Walker's bill, Illinois' civic and education leaders are working together to achieve many of the same education policy goals.

Clearly, Illinois understands that passing laws is the beginning, not the end, of school improvement. Once SB 7 is signed, Illinois is poised to begin work on implementation with all the important players at the table, including representatives of the state's teachers, who are the people whose efforts matter most in improving schools. Sure, there have been bumps along the way, including some last minute arm wrestling around trailer legislation, but the contrast between Wisconsin and Illinois is striking and a credit to Illinois' civic leadership and the professionalism of its educators.

Does all this mean that Illinoisans are just bigger people than their neighbors? Hardly. But they were better prepared for real change. The groundwork that led up to SB 7 is a much bigger story about how leaders in Illinois strategically set about changing their state's commitment to education reform. It is worth telling because it's a strategy that can play out in any state where leading citizens are frustrated with the status quo.

If you follow education policy, you know that, until the last few years, Illinois was as middling as its geography when it came to reform. The Joyce Foundation, a Midwest funder based in Chicago, sought to change that and quickly attracted other funders, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. They initiated a benchmarking study of civic groups working at the state level, observing that in every leading state, at least one and sometimes several education advocacy groups were active. Those organizations brought a full-time, evidenced-based, public voice to debates on public education policy. (I played a small role in those early benchmarking efforts, creating "Rabble Rousers: A guide for launching state-based education reform advocacy organizations", a resource for Illinois that was re-released last year by the PIE Network.)

The foundations then began conversations with some of Illinois's leading citizens from both sides of the political aisle who cared deeply about education. When those leaders gathered as a group, they quickly came to see that they were the leadership they craved -- that theirs were the voices missing in the debate.

Initially, these early conversations within Illinois's civic community were loosely organized as a sort of kitchen cabinet as they explored options and models at work in other states. With growing support from their foundation community, additional research helped identify the state's major policy challenges. Over time, the kitchen cabinet formalized as the board of Advance Illinois, and staff was soon hired.

The early work of creating Advance Illinois changed the landscape for reform in Illinois in five significant ways. First, its founders assembled one of the more impressive civic boards in the country, sending a clear signal to Springfield that the state's leading citizens were collectively paying attention to education. Second, they prepared for their launch with a statewide listening tour that brought disparate communities into the conversation about changing schools. Third, they launched a campaign whose theme, We Can Do Better, provided the data to focus the state's frustrations and the inspiration to rouse its ambitions. Fourth, that campaign set the stage for Illinois's impressive fifth place ranking in the first round of Race to the Top--not bad for a state that wasn't on education reform's radar a few years prior.

Finally, and especially significantly for SB 7, new donors were drawn by the optimism and momentum of this early work, creating the appetite for another advocacy voice. Last year, Stand for Children was invited into Illinois as a second significant advocacy force in Illinois. As Stand built the third largest political action committee in the state, raising more than $3 million in less than a year, and worked with Advance Illinois to expand the state's reform coalition, it helped drive this legislation home.

But before either of these groups existed, leading citizens I spoke with in Illinois sounded a lot like civic leaders I occasionally talk with today from one of the 20 or so states that have no advocacy voice for education representing them in their state capital: frustrated with their state's leaders and disconnected from others who felt the same.

A dozen or so leading citizens, backed by local and national philanthropy, put Illinois on this path to becoming a national leader in education reform, distinguishing its approach from its neighbor. Enacting SB 7 will demonstrate that profound, productive change is within the grasp of any state whose civic leaders want more from their public schools.

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