From the Desk of Robin Steans – 2021: A Year of Building Back Better

Posted on February 03, 2021

From the Desk: 2021: A Year of Building Back Better

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

Like many of you, I was glad to say goodbye to 2020. However, even as vaccinations are underway and we can begin to imagine returning to a new “normal” in the year ahead, it is clear 2021 will present its own challenges. COVID-19 is still surging, civil unrest continues, and data is emerging that confirms the impact this pandemic is having on students, especially our youngest learners and across lines of race/ethnicity and income. As we consider the year ahead, Advance Illinois has a number of interconnected priorities. 

We must invest in B-20 education continuum and we must do so equitably 

There is no question, 2021 will be a tough budget year for Illinois. In addition to ongoing fiscal challenges, Illinois now faces a confluence of events and issues that will place enormous stress on our finances. 

The reality is that education in Illinois is deeply underfunded, and our needs just went up. As challenging as it will be, it is time to treat our educational system – early childhood, k-12, and higher education – as one interconnected structure that will adequately and equitably serve all Illinois students. 

We have an opportunity to reimagine early childhood education and care. 

In recent years, the state has been working to address and improve access to high-quality and affordable early childhood programs. We applaud Governor Pritzker for creating the Illinois Commission on Equitable Early Childhood Education and Care Funding to take a hard look at how we fund and operate our early childhood system and to develop recommendations to make Illinois the best state in the country for raising a family. When the commission reports out in March, we expect it – for the first time in the state’s history – to calculate how much the state should be spending to ensure equitable access to quality care and programming. That’s a necessary step, and we expect the gap to be in the billions. With that information in hand, as sobering as it may be, we will have an obligation to put ourselves on a path to meet those needs and to implement other commission recommendations on how to more strategically and equitably support families and providers.   

We have an obligation to live up to our commitments to support equitable K-12 funding. 

Having taken a “pause” in growing the state’s K-12 funding last year, it is essential that the state renew its commitment to putting at least $350 million into its Evidence-Based Funding formula.  Doing so permits districts to create strong, sustainable educational programs and to use federal relief funds for their intended purpose: to safely reopen schools for in-person learning and support students socially, emotionally, and academically as they recover from the many ways in which COVID-19 has disrupted their development and learning.   

We are overdue to revamp higher education funding. 

As for higher education, not only must we reinvest, but we must do so with a commitment to equity.  Disinvestment in higher education over the last few decades, particularly during difficult budget years, has forced institutions to more than double tuition and fees in order to stay open, and students from low-income households bear the brunt of this burden. That must change. We are encouraged by the Illinois Board of Higher Education’s strategic planning process, which has spotlighted the need for funding reform, appreciate the suggestions coming from the Partnership for College Completion, and applaud the support and urging of the Illinois Black Caucus and General Assembly. We intend to work with these and other leaders to articulate a clear understanding of the cost and develop an equitable funding mechanism for higher education that not only drives resources where they are needed most, but can serve as a national model. 

After 12 months of disruption, we have a responsibility to support students and educators – socially, emotionally, and academically – and to build back better. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted education in every community, exacerbating systemic racial/ethnic and socio-economic inequities and creating unprecedented challenges for children and families as well as educators. Research suggests that the disrupted schooling over the past year, if left unaddressed, will impact students’ educational outcomes and reduce their lifetime earnings. We must act boldly and collaboratively to make sure our students and educators have the supports and tools they need to recover and thrive beyond this crisis, recognizing that recovery and renewal will take years and acknowledging the equity imperative at the core of this work.   

We are heartened that the Illinois P20 Council is working with leaders, practitioners and experts from across the state to coordinate research-based practices to inform short- and long-term recovery and renewal efforts from preschool through postsecondary. Through a combination of guidance, statewide programs, and partnership on locally-driven efforts, leaders are working to craft and employ a multi-year plan to that prioritizes research-based strategies. While work is still in process, priorities include: increasing access to mental health supports, along with trauma-informed training; creating mechanisms to identify and re-engage students who have dropped out or had limited access to education throughout the pandemic; providing students and teachers with additional in-person instructional and planning time; and strengthening digital access and virtual teaching and learning. 

While we all look forward to going “back to normal,” the hard reality is that recovery and renewal will likely take years. We need to support local efforts, even as we recognize the state has a unique responsibility to ensure an equitable recovery for all. We hope the tensions that have challenged communities over the past year will not prevent us from coming together to support the next generation. 

Never have we needed data more to help understand how children and students are doing and to inform the path forward. 

As we begin the new year, we are starting with a number of unanswered questions: How are our children and students faring academically and socially during COVID-19? Who has needed supports and services? What is happening to the students that didn’t show up for school or programs? Are the impacts of COVID-19 playing out differently by geography/race/income/age? What is happening to our educators and workforce? Are teachers and leaders getting the training and supports they need to address unprecedented levels of trauma and/or the vagaries of remote instruction? While some national, state, district, and/or school data exists, it varies by locality and very little is available at the state level to answer these and other pressing questions. 

We know enrollment in PreK and kindergarten is down – but by how much and in what communities? We know we have lost postsecondary students. Is there a pattern that might shed light on how to re-engage students? And with 852 different districts measuring attendance in 852 different ways, what do we know about student engagement and learning as we work to ready ourselves for what’s ahead? This is not just an Illinois problem, but a national one, too

We must take advantage of every opportunity to better understand how students are doing – academically and beyond. We know student learning and development has been disrupted, but we cannot address serious issues without basic information about what has happened, recognizing that this pandemic has not affected all students and communities equally. As importantly, we will not know whether we are making necessary progress without critical data points along the way. While this need has become more acute with COVID-19, having quality and comprehensive data is true at all times to help inform and improve educational supports and services. 

The need to strengthen and diversify the education profession is more critical than ever. 

Teachers are the most important in-school factor impacting student learning. Every parent understands that even more keenly now! Unfortunately, Illinois is struggling to maintain a strong and diverse educator pipeline. In SY20-21, Illinois had over 1,700 unfilled teaching positions in public schools, and while 53 percent of Illinois students are non-White, just 18 percent of our teaching force is of color.  

The Illinois Legislative Black Caucus made important strides for our state’s educator pipeline this January, passing HB2170, also known as the Education Omnibus bill. Among the bill’s many highlights, it updated Illinois’ Minority Teachers of Illinois scholarship to better support teacher candidates of color, removed state-mandated GPA entrance requirements that restricted alternative program participation, and laid out a path for better educator preparation course alignment and articulation. In early childhood education and care, it encouraged agencies to provide targeted scholarship funding and coaching and to address barriers to accessing higher education. These are important steps in the right direction.  

If Illinois wants all students to have educators who are prepared to support their academic, social, and emotional learning, the state needs an ambitious and coordinated pipeline strategy to recruit, prepare, retain, and continuously support highly effective and diverse educators. This includes: 

  • expanding high-quality high school pathways 
  • ensuring our educator preparation programs are affordable for candidates 
  • investing in proven program, including alternative certification programs 
  • maintaining licensure expectations that are focused on evidence-based critical skills and practices supporting mentoring and induction programs (particularly for teachers and leaders of color) 
  • combatting bias in hiring and promotion 

As we look ahead, exhausted from a long, hard year, there is more to do. COVID-19 and its aftermath have presented a once-in-a-century set of challenges, and all of us at Advance Illinois remain deeply grateful for the heroic efforts of so many across the state to tirelessly and creatively meet extraordinary needs.   

We hope you had a chance to renew at least a bit over the new year and look forward to working together to ensure this pandemic does not cast a shadow over our children’s futures and that we build back better in 2021 and beyond. 

Sincerely and in partnership,

Robin Steans
President