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Illinois Education Secretary Purvis weighs in on the future of rural schools

This article appeared in The Southern Illinoisan on April 30, 2017. Continuing Ed. is a yearlong, statewide series of free public programs that puts parents and schools back at the center of conversations addressing difficult questions. You can find the original article here.

CARBONDALE — The Illinois Humanities Association, in partnership with the Association of Illinois Rural and Small Schools, presented a community forum designed to promote discussion about the challenges and opportunities facing public schools in predominantly rural areas Thursday at Giant City School.“The Future of Rural Public Schools,” included Egyptian High School Honor Student Daneesha Carthell, Decatur teacher Keith Creighton and Dr. Beth Purvis, the Illinois Secretary of Education. Moderator and former SIU Chancellor Sam Goldman facilitated a discussion that addressed the distinct challenges that confront rural educators and

“The Future of Rural Public Schools,” included Egyptian High School Honor Student Daneesha Carthell, Decatur teacher Keith Creighton and Dr. Beth Purvis, the Illinois Secretary of Education. Moderator and former SIU Chancellor Sam Goldman facilitated a discussion that addressed the distinct challenges that confront rural educators and students, and tackled the topics of community adopted value systems and place-based education.Purvis spoke at length about the state of Education in Illinois. Community members spoke about the unfair distribution of school funding between the school

Purvis spoke at length about the state of Education in Illinois. Community members spoke about the unfair distribution of school funding between the school districts, and asked if Purvis thought that the state was fair to all its constituencies.She said she would be shocked if she went anywhere that question didn’t come up.

She said she would be shocked if she went anywhere that question didn’t come up.

Purvis went on to suggest a history buff could go back to the 1970 Illinois Constitutional Convention and take the headlines from that time about our school funding formula and put it in any current newspaper in the state and they would be relevant today.

“So are we fairly funding the schools? No. But that begs the question why aren’t we doing so?” she said.

The secretary cited a high reliance on property tax as one of the problems.

“In state rankings we finish near the bottom for the percentage of school funding that comes from the state,” she said. “We have one of the largest gaps between what we spend in our wealthiest communities, and what we spend in our poorest communities.

“We also have a state in which we have a lot of local control over school funding, and so we need something in the way of funding reform that allows those local communities to make their own decisions about their financing.”

Purvis cited the findings of the Illinois School Funding Reform Commission (ISFRC) established by Gov. Bruce Rauner. She said that this administration has increased funding for Pre-K through 12th grade by $700 million in last few years.

“This is the highest level of pre-K funding the state has ever had,” she said. “The problem is that after the 2009-2015 proration, many districts have had to spend down their reserves. Add to that, the fact that right now, due to the budget crunch, mandated categoricals are not funded the way they should be, which is creating real problems for our schools.”

The ISFRC, Purvis said, found that it was neither the equity-based models, not the evidence-based models of funding that were correct, but rather the solution to the funding dilemma lay somewhere between the two.

“In addition, we also need to take into account local available wealth, and then we need to fill in the gap first in the schools that are the farthest away from equity,” Purvis said.

Purvis said that the framework is there for needed reform in the form of three bills currently before the State Legislature.

“The ISFRC is attempting to do what it has been asked to do in a bipartisan way,” she said. “And the hope is that the funding agreement can anchor a larger funding agreement”

Pruvis noted that to be in Carbondale and to not be very clear that “we are in a beyond-crisis situation from the lack of a budget and its effect on higher education would be disingenuous of me. I acknowledge how difficult that is for everyone in post-secondary education in every post-secondary institution in the state, and how difficult it is for towns like Carbondale when the University is one of the primary employers and economic driver of the city.”

Carbondale resident Barry Ancell questioned the Secretary as to how long this process was going to take.

“We are getting to a point where it’s possible that a half-a-dozen schools in Southern Illinois,” Ancell said.Purcell acknowledged the community’s right to be angry in the face of fiscal famine and assured the community that the Governor was taking the funding of school systems very seriously.

Purcell acknowledged the community’s right to be angry in the face of fiscal famine and assured the community that the Governor was taking the funding of school systems very seriously.

“This is not just about Madigan and Rauner, she said. “It is important for people to understand the complexity of the issue. For instance, between 2000 and 2015 direct support for post-secondary education decreased by 35 per cent, which is a big hit. But during the same time the State’s University Retirement system increased 395 percent. So it’s not that the state hasn’t been spending money, but where it has had to spend the money.”

Other discussions focused on stopping the drain of students and teachers from rural areas. Ed Shoemate, superintendent of Cobden Unit District No. 17 Schools, said his district had found great success inviting the community into the school to celebrate their first annual kids day. He offered that the sharing of food from multiple cultural background stimulated conversation and a sense of belonging.

Lamar Houston, president of the Egyptian School Board of Education, described how place-based education brought new understanding to students in his district. When a flood occurred and the school was inundated, teachers used the experience as an opportunity to learn about the watershed in the southern part of the state.

Miriam Uribe, a bilingual and ESL teacher at Cobden Elementary School, spoke of challenging the educational and economic norms within the Hispanic community while retaining language to keep community members true to their roots.

Patrick Rice, director of the Illinois Association of School Boards, suggested that communities should define for themselves what their values should be, and that the outcome of such a discussion was not a one-size-fits-all solution.

Kay Ripplemeyer-Tippy, Illinois Humanities Program Liaison for Southern Illinois, said it was important to acknowledge the tensions that occurred in navigating rural school systems.

“You want the school to be the best it can, and at the same time, you don’t want your kids to go away to pursue their higher education,” she said. “You want to keep your community together the best you can by celebrating its history, but you want to encourage diversity.”