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State government could take over a school district near you

UPDATED Nov. 7, 2014

Ask Illinois residents what’s most important to them and their families, and education is likely to be right up there—often at the top of the list.

So it’s no surprise that citizens expect high educational standards from government (and solid financing). But most prefer their state involvement at arms length.

But the fact is Illinois, has the power to take over local schools. They can fire elected school board members and put a new superintendent in place.

Two years ago, it did just that. The state took over two school districts, one in East Saint Louis and the other in North Chicago, a low income and racially mixed suburb wedged between more the tony North Shore and Waukegan.

Chris Koch is the superintendent of all Illinois schools, and he explains it this way:  “You have to take actions when kids aren’t getting the basics. And that’s certainly what’s happening here.”

The school district in North Chicago had problems that read like a Dickens novel: 80 percent of kids not meeting state learning standards, burdensome debt, and school board meetings that sometimes collapsed into chaotic screaming matches.

State intervention has helped North Chicago reduce its debt. But the district is still operating on a deficit. The district superintendent there says he expects to run out of cash in four years.

But overall, education policy watchers say the takeover has been a win so far, with some private money is coming in and state superintendent Koch taking a personal interest in the people there.

But even with those positives, there is no endgame in sight.

That’s something that worries Kenneth Wong, a professor at Brown University who’s been watching school takeovers across the country. He says North Chicago is typical of school takeovers by state government.

“What I’m seeing also is the absence of an exit strategy,” Wong says. “That is, they rush into direct intervention, but then oftentimes there is a lack of details.”

For his part, Koch doesn’t seem worried about an exit strategy in North Chicago just yet. The finances and academics are still too bad.

“We really have to be there, I think, for the longer duration,” Koch says. “Because you don’t want it to go back into its prior state and that could easily happen particularly with the precarious financial situation they’re currently in.”

Koch is also turning his attention to other failing districts around the state.

He’s pushing legislation that would lay out the steps needed for Illinois to intervene in failing districts.

House Bill 5537 singles out districts on state academic watch, which means they have to show better test scores, and higher attendance and graduation rates.

Ben Schwarm lobbies in Springfield on behalf of school boards and he’s going up against Koch when it comes to state takeovers.

“The idea of anyone, especially an appointed body, having the authority to remove from office elected officials based on the decisions they made certainly isn’t generally the way democracy works in Illinois or in our country,” Schwarm says.

Koch’s bill is moving in an election year in which the candidates for governor have been campaigning mostly about how best to finance education instead of education policy.

Koch’s actions in North Chicago provide a window into incumbent Democratic Gov. Quinn’s strategy for failing schools.

Republican candidate Bruce Rauner hasn’t talked specifically about state takeovers. But he advocates for more charter schools statewide, especially for failing districts.

“It’s not fair for parents to be stuck in a school that is failing and not fitting their kids’ needs," Rauner says. "We need to create options and choice, especially for lower income families that can’t afford to move.”

This story has been updated: The districts that legislation the Illinois State Board of Education supports are located all over Illinois – not just in Chicago’s south suburbs. A spokeswoman for ISBE emphasizes that the state does not intend to take over all school boards in districts that are failing in the state, and says the legislation is not intended to make it easier for the state to take over failing schools. Instead, it’s meant to spell out steps that the state would have to take in order to remove the school board of a failing district. 

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