Officials hope education on Obama's priority list

  • By Paul D. Bowker
  • Education reporter
  • November 18, 2008 @ 9:00 AM

Two weeks have passed since Barack Obama’s election as president of the United States and national focus is on fixing the troubled economy.

But deep inside the downtown central office of Chicago Public Schools, excitement about an Obama White House and what it could do for educational reform and funding is spreading.

“It gives me so much hope and so much promise,” says Chicago Board of Education President Rufus Williams. “No more excuses, no more glass ceilings, no more limitations. There‘s opportunity.”

Obama’s education plan includes doubling federal funding for charter schools, awarding merit pay to teachers and spending $500 million to upgrade school technology.

He proposes spending an additional $19 billion in federal funding for education, and would do so by cutting funding in other areas.

Jesse Ruiz, the Illinois Board of Education chairman, who lives in Chicago, says Obama‘s work with the Illinois Early Learning Council to improve early childhood programs shows Obama’s passion for education.

Obama’s 0 to 5 plan, Ruiz says, could have a big impact. The plan involves federal grants to expand preschool programs develop new learning programs for even younger children.

The new buzzword around early childhood educational circles is “cradle to kindergarten,” Williams says.

“Preschool is critically important,” Williams adds. “When we try to break the achievement gap, it begins there. By the time they‘re three or four years behind, catching up becomes exceedingly difficult.”

Especially since the No Child Left Behind Act, created in 2001, will come up for renewal during Obama’s presidential term, educators will look to Obama to increase funding at the federal level. However, that won‘t be easy, considering the financial crisis Obama will inherit in January.

“The president-elect knows we need resources to make things happen,” says Williams, who believes that Obama will find ways to change the funding structure.

“They need to step up with the dollars,” Ruiz says.

Federal educational funding jumped from $42.2 billion in 2001 to $54.4 billion in 2007, but critics say NCLB was never fully funded. NCLB, proposed by President George Bush immediately after taking office in January 2001, mandates a 7 percent increase each year in student scores in standardized state tests.

In Illinois, the test is the Illinois Standard Achievement Test (ISAT), in which city students have recorded increases for seven straight years.

CPS approved a record $6.1 billion budget in August, but is using $500 million in reserve funds to cover the costs. CPS is receiving $1.9 billion from the state, about $82 million less than it requested. Another $2.2 billion comes from property taxes.

Obama, the former junior U.S. senator from Illinois, ran his campaign on a promise of sweeping change. He is the first African-American and person of mixed-race to be elected president. He was raised by a single parent and maternal grandparents.

Duncan says Obama "... embodies what some of our students are. He doesn‘t come from a lot of money, he didn‘t come from a two-parent home.“

In many ways, Obama's candidacy has already changed education in Chicago.

“I feel more empowered, I feel more challenged,” says Williams, a graduate of Orr High School.


Paul Bowker, a Chicago-area journalist with 25 years of experience, covers Chicago Public Schools for the Daily News.