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Accountability will improve schools
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Published: 11/22/2008 7:43 PM

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"The evidence is clear. Illinois students across the state consistently score at or below average on national tests. ... A student can graduate from an Illinois public school having fulfilled every requirement and passed every test and still be unprepared for postsecondary education and work."

That is the alarmingly dismal conclusion of yet another task force looking for ways to improve the state's public school system. This review panel, called Advance Illinois, is chaired by former Gov. Jim Edgar and former U.S. Commerce Secretary Bill Daley. It counts former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert among its task force members.

The group has just been formed, but there is nothing new about its mission: "It's time to transform education in our state".

We've heard that from task force after task force through the decades. And yet public schools in Illinois continue to trail the rest of the nation and the world in graduating students ready for college and the workplace.

We know there are many excellent school systems in the suburbs. But their performance isn't reflective of what is happening in many other classrooms.

Indeed, we are not surprised at the findings of Advance Illinois. Our November 2007 investigative series, "School Finance 101" showed that only a fifth of the state's seniors are deemed college-ready. We found that half of the students in our readership area needed a remedial education class before they could start freshman classes at area community colleges. And area employers said they were seeing too many job applicants who just weren't ready for the work at hand.

No doubt, Advance Illinois will hear what task forces before them were told - you have to spend more money on education.

Well, in the years 1996 to November 2007, taxpayers funneled about $200 billion into the Illinois public school system, raising annual spending per pupil from $8,300 to $12,670, an increase more than double the rate of inflation during that time.

And for all this, we get yet another warning that the state must do a better job of educating its students.

The answer is not to keep throwing money at the problem. Nor is it to indiscriminately slash school spending without regard for the consequences. The solution is to improve the aim of those dollars so that they hit the bull's eye of accountability.

And it goes beyond improving testing systems that are intended to hold school systems responsible for their performance.

Taxpayers have to demand a better return on their huge investment of tax dollars in the schools.

They will have a chance to do so in the 2009 elections, when they choose local school board members. They can seek out candidates who know those tax dollars can be better used. Candidates who aren't "anti-education", but against the status quo that is leaving our children unprepared when they go off into the world.