An Education Governor
A product of the Illinois public education system, Jim Edgar knew the health of the economy and the ability of families to turn dreams into reality depended on the strength of the state’s educational system.
During his 1990 campaign, Edgar took a political risk by announcing he would fight to make permanent the temporary income tax surcharge for education.
He fulfilled that commitment. In his second term, the Governor pushed for comprehensive reform. He fought for and attained passage of historic legislation that established a foundation level of state-supported, minimum per pupil spending, thereby ensuring that children in the state’s poorest districts have an equal chance at a quality education. During his tenure the state’s per pupil spending for K thru 12th grade jumped from $2,502 in 1990 to $4,225 in 1999.
In 1995, Edgar dared to overhaul the Chicago public school system. The city’s public education system was transformed from an urban failure to a model for metropolitan schools throughout the nation.
In addition, Edgar was the first Governor to implement statewide accountability measures including establishing the state watch list in 1991 and the Illinois Goal Assessment Program in 1996. And in 1997, the Governor passed reforms for stricter tenure and certification requirements for teachers.
In higher education, Illinois rose to fourth in the nation in supporting public universities. Governor Edgar overhauled the university governance system and as tuition costs rose, Edgar consistently increased scholarship grants and signed legislation creating the tax-exempt, prepaid tuition program, a first in the nation.
Increase in per-pupil spending from 1990 to 1999
Increase in funding for public schools
High school graduation rate (highest level in 10 years)
Improving the state’s education system was one of the Governor’s highest priorities. Here, in 1991, Edgar stressed to East St. Louis High School students and faculty the importance of education in developing a skilled workforce.
From Aug. 8, 1989, the day Edgar announced his candidacy for governor in his hometown of Charleston, there was never a doubt about the value he placed on education preparing today’s children for tomorrow.
“We can assure that Illinois has an education system that is second to none in our nation, an education system that will help us attract and keep good jobs, an education system that will encourage our children to stay in Illinois and raise our grandchildren here, a system that will assure that Illinois is a state prosperous enough to meet the needs of the truly needy and to bring them into the mainstream of our society,” he said then.
Edgar knew Illinois’ future, the health of the economy, the quality of life in cities and towns, and the ability of families to turn dreams into reality — depended on the strength of the state’s educational system, from the earliest basics in elementary school through advanced training in the state’s community colleges and world-class universities.
Edgar took his campaign for fairer education funding throughout the state in 1997, visiting schools, meeting with community groups and speaking to statewide organizations at the Illinois Education Association.
Time and again, Edgar put his political and governmental career on the line for consistent and equitable school funding.
In his first campaign for governor, Edgar took the unpopular side of the income tax surcharge for education issue, a focal point of the 1990 election. For Edgar, this posed huge political risks. He campaigned on the promise to keep the higher income tax for education, while his Democratic opponent, Attorney General Neil Hartigan, played to anti-tax proponents by saying he would veto any attempt to continue the 20 percent surcharge, due to expire in 1991.
While editorials, like one in the Chicago Tribune, noted “what [Edgar] said was honest and responsible, truly a remarkable way to start a campaign,” political strategists and other politicians questioned the wisdom of this politically risky stance. Voters, however, embraced Edgar’s honesty on taxes and agreed that education funding must be maintained.
As he explained during a September 1990 gubernatorial debate, “[The next governor] must have the vision and discipline to look beyond the next election to the next decade and even to the next century. He must have the conscience and courage to place principle above political expediency. That is what leadership is all about.”
Edgar and Kustra are greeted by fourth grade students at Joseph E. Gary School on Chicago’s west side in 1991 where the Governor signed a law to clarify the authority and responsibilities of the Local School Councils in Chicago.
In November 1987, then U.S. Education Secretary William J. Bennett told reporters that Chicago’s high dropout rate and low scores on college entrance exams made it the nation’s worst urban school system. A decade later, President Bill Clinton cited the turnaround by Chicago’s public schools as a national model for other troubled school systems.
“I want what is happening in Chicago to happen all over America,” Clinton said. “What is working in Chicago must blow like a wind of change into every school in every city in America.”
What led to this remarkable transformation?
It was legislation initiated by Governor Edgar and passed in 1995 by the Republican-controlled General Assembly. This innovative approach brought a business- management style to operations at the country’s third largest public school system, which was desperately in need of a sweeping overhaul. Edgar’s plan put in place a new, streamlined management team appointed by the city’s mayor and a new structure with more tools, greater flexibility and increased accountability for the education of 425,000 schoolchildren in Chicago.In November 1987, then U.S. Education Secretary William J. Bennett told reporters that Chicago’s high dropout rate and low scores on college entrance exams made it the nation’s worst urban school system. A decade later, President Bill Clinton cited the turnaround by Chicago’s public schools as a national model for other troubled school systems.
Bob Morrison, chairman and CEO of Kraft Foods, an early corporate sponsor of Project Success, and Edgar are presented with a straight A+ report card from a Chicago student in 1995.
Even with the best teachers in the best schools, a child who is hungry, homeless, sick or abused will have a tough time learning in the classroom. In his 1991 State of the State address, Edgar called for pilot programs to make schools a focal point for state and community human services that address health and family problems that hinder a child’s potential.
At Edgar’s direction, Lt. Gov. Bob Kustra assumed the task of developing a model plan so communities could pool talents, energies and resources to improve the well- being of children and families, thereby freeing kids to learn. Kustra convened teachers, parents, businesses, school administrators, community-based service providers, private social service agencies, advocacy organizations, directors of the state’s social service agencies and the State Board of Education. The result was Project Success, a program that quickly became one of Edgar’s favorites and later served as an inspiration for sweeping changes in how the state’s human services are delivered.
Edgar supported programs to ensure students were ready to learn when they entered school. During his administration, the Governor nearly tripled the number of children served by early childhood education.
In 1985, the state began giving grants to school districts to initiate preschool programs for 3-and 4-year-olds identified to be at risk of academic failure without intervention. Edgar firmly believed that every boy and girl entering school must learn to their potential. Toward this end, early childhood programs claimed funding priority.
During Edgar’s administration, spending for early childhood education programs increased by more than 144 percent to a record $154 million in fiscal 1999. The number of children served by these efforts nearly tripled, to more than 50,000.
“No child should enter school unprepared to learn, doomed to an educational lifetime of trailing his or her classmates, or failing because he or she was not ready to learn,” Edgar said in his 1991 State of the State address. “If that child fails, we have failed.”
Edgar demanded schools be held accountable for the performance of their students to guarantee state and local education dollars were being spent wisely. The Governor often visited schools throughout the state, including this classroom in Belleville in 1991 where he took questions from students at Abraham Lincoln Grade School.
When Edgar took office in 1991, he wanted a means to gauge how the state’s elementary and secondary schools were performing. At the Governor’s urging, business leaders, educators and legislators crafted an accountability law that created a pioneering school accreditation process to assure state and local education dollars were being used to their best advantage.
“The future of this state is being determined right now in our classrooms,” Edgar said in signing the law on Sept. 17, 1991. “We must do our utmost to provide our schools with the resources they need, but we also must demand that they produce the right results. Making schools more accountable is crucial to meeting the most important challenge we face as a state — assuring we continue to have the skilled, well-qualified workforce that has made Illinois the economic hub of the nation’s heart-land.”
School test results are evaluated and attendance and graduation rates monitored. Those schools with students performing at high levels or substantially improved levels receive state recognition and less oversight. However, schools that fail to meet minimum standards go on an academic watch list. The state may ultimately take control of a school or school district that chronically lags below standards.
Edgar realized classrooms could benefit from computer technology. He successfully pushed for funding to ensure that every school district in the state will have high-speed access to the Internet by 2000.
To ensure schools kept pace with new technology, Edgar was an enthusiastic supporter of computers and the Internet in schools. In 1993, he announced an initiative to expand computer technology from kindergarten through 12th grade. By fiscal 1999, more than $140
million had been spent to help schools integrate technology and to ensure that all 903 Illinois school districts would be connected to the Internet by year 2000.
The Governor also used the latest in telecommunications for the “LincOn Network,” which connects students throughout the state with expert instruction located miles away from them. “In some schools, students in kindergarten are already learning to use the mouse as well as the crayon,” Edgar said. “And when we fulfill our goal of having every school in Illinois on-line, the Internet will replace the encyclopedia.” In 1997, the Governor signed legislation extending the network to private schools if they pay an access fee.
Edgar signed legislation in 1995 that he had proposed to reform higher education governance and return control and accountability to each of the state’s public universities.
It probably is not surprising that Edgar has a strong affinity for the state’s higher education system. He is the first elected Illinois governor to graduate from a state public university (Eastern Illinois University in 1968). His wife, Brenda, is a fellow alumnus (1998), as are his two brothers. His mother was an EIU student before leaving to get married. Edgar grew up in Charleston just blocks from EIU’s campus.
Upon taking office, the Governor set out to make the state’s community colleges and universities second to none in the nation. Beginning in 1995, Edgar did what no other governor had done — fully fund the Illinois Board of Higher Education’s spending request. He repeated this feat for five straight years.
During Edgar’s tenure as governor, state funding for community colleges and universities grew by $567 million to more than $2.25 billion, ranking Illinois fourth among the 50 states in state funds allocated for higher education. In the past decade, Illinois higher education spending increased by nearly 70 percent, well above the national average of 44 percent. In fiscal 1999, the $148 million increase for higher education became the largest in state history.
The Governor invested millions of dollars to bring new technology to students on the state’s university and community college campuses. One initiative, dealing with distance learning, resulted in more than 400 two-way learning sites at schools and businesses throughout Illinois, such as the one shown here in 1994 at Richland Community College.
The state’s community college system provides low-cost education for one out of 11 Illinoisans. Students use these two-year institutions as a foundation for the move toward a more advanced university or college degree.
Industry relies on them to train and retrain workers for the ever-changing technical needs of the job market. Adults look to them for convenient continuing education to improve their marketability or simply to learn something new.
The bargain prices of community colleges have contributed to their wide acceptance. Tuition costs range from $1,000 to $1,600 annually. Tuition, room and board at Illinois public universities run $8,000 a year and that figure jumps to $18,000 a year for a private college, according to a 1997 survey by the Illinois Board of Higher Education.
One deterrent to attending a community college had been the difficulty of transferring credits to a university. But in 1998 the Illinois Community College Board, under the chairmanship of Harry Crisp, a Marion business executive who led the board throughout Edgar’s eight years as Governor, saw to it that would no longer be a problem. The board approved new rules to allow students to easily transfer to any of the state’s 12 public universities or private institutions without losing credit for work already completed.
In 1991, Edgar announced Arthur F. Quern as his choice for chairman of the State Board of Higher Education during a visit to Illinois Wesleyan University. The Governor and Quern pushed reforms to allow students to finish their undergraduate education in four years.
As the cost of attending Illinois public universities and community colleges escalated, Edgar made sure in- state financial help also increased commensurately, along with new innovative assistance and savings programs so all students could have the opportunity to pursue degrees and their dreams.
For example, while undergraduate tuition and fees at the University of Illinois at Chicago rose to $4,358 for the 1997-98 school year, Edgar in turn increased the maximum grant funds available for a student to $4,320.
During the 1998-99 school year, $310 million will move through the Monetary Awards Program (MAP) to 135,500 students, or nearly one-fifth of the full-time students enrolled in the state’s public and private colleges and universities. Illinois MAP, the second largest need-based program in the nation, trailing only New York’s, provides financial assistance on a need basis to students attending college in Illinois. For the first time, in 1997, the program included students attending accredited degree-granting private institutions. Since Edgar took office, funding for MAP increased 69 percent.