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by Mary Williams Walsh.
Mary’s piece (below) focuses on public education in Peoria, Illinois. During the Nixon Administration, when public policies were being discussed, the political question that always applied was: “will it play in Peoria?” Here’s what’s playing in Peoria now.
Ted Dabrowski took his show to Peoria the other day. He knew how he’d play in Peoria, but he went anyway.
Dabrowski is president of Wirepoints, an Illinois nonprofit that researches tough subjects like criminal justice and public education; it also runs an Illinois-centered news service. He had some new numbers on math and reading proficiency in the Peoria public schools, and a local business group, concerned about finding qualified people to hire, had asked him to come and discuss his findings.
The numbers were alarming: At one high school in Peoria, not a single student could do math at grade level. Not one. There were 11 other schools where fewer than 5 percent could read at grade level. If you looked at just the high school seniors, only 14 percent were proficient in reading, yet 80 percent graduated.
That was the odd thing: The children of Peoria seemed to be learning very little in the public schools, but the schools themselves got good ratings. So did the teachers. One high school was rated “commendable,” the state’s second-highest possible rating, even though just 1 percent of the kids there were proficient in math and reading. As for Peoria’s teachers, 100 percent of them were rated either “excellent” or “proficient.”
News the people of Peoria could use, right?
The mayor was a no-show, but those who did turn out were receptive. Two local TV stations covered Dabrowski’s talk. But when the reporters went to get the “other side,” that’s where the curtain came down.
“We need to look at the whole child,” scolded a state education official, accusing Dabrowski of “reducing them to a number.”
The Peoria school superintendent provided an icy written statement: Dabrowski should “broaden the narrative to discuss the wider disparities and the historical racism/classism that has contributed to the marginalization of most of our student population.”
And then there was billionaire Governor J.B. Pritzker. He said Dabrowski was “just wrong,” and called Wirepoints “a right-wing carnival-barker organization.”
That was that. The governor didn’t specify what was wrong with Dabrowski’s findings, but he didn’t really have to. In today’s polarized political climate, all one side has to do is smear the other and meaningful discussion comes to a halt.
“Illinois is in a really funny place now,” Dabrowski said. “Nobody will talk about the real issues.”
Peoria is Illinois’s eighth largest city, though its population peaked at 115,000 in 2010 and has been dwindling since—a bad sign, since most American cities that size are growing. Peoria was built on the region’s ample grain and coal, shipped out through a busy port on the Illinois River. As it grew, it came to project such a stable, bland, middle-of-the-road prosperity that its name became shorthand for middle American tastes—nothing too edgy, please. Peoria’s shoppers tested Pampers, the McDonald’s McRib sandwich, and the ill-fated New Coke before those products went nationwide, and the NBC Nightly News used Peoria’s skyline as a backdrop in 1992, when gauging the public mood ahead of that year’s presidential election.
And now? A few weeks before last year’s midterm elections, the Chicago Sun-Times sent a reporter to Peoria, to take the city’s pulse. The place, he wrote, “has typically been a Democratic-leaning, pale blue urban dot in a sea of red, solidly Republican rural counties in central Illinois.” But now he caught an unmistakable sense of frustration with politicians of both parties, who seemed less and less interested in finding the center that Peoria represented, and instead just played to the extremes.
“I’m trying to leave a decent world for my grandchildren, and there are people still talking about the 2020 election, and nonsense about stealing elections,” one woman complained to him while waiting for the bus. “We’ve got real problems. Gotta move on from the made-up ones.”
Caterpillar, the Fortune 100 maker of construction and mining equipment, had its corporate headquarters in Peoria since 1930, but suddenly moved it out in 2017. Now its headquarters are in Texas. Caterpillar still has a manufacturing plant in East Peoria, but the loss of headquarters was a big blow to the city. It didn’t help when a Cat spokeswoman told The Dallas Morning News that “talent attraction” was a key reason.
The last CEO to work at the Peoria headquarters was Doug Oberhelman, who also served as chairman of the National Association of Manufacturers and was not shy about speaking out on Corporate America’s needs. One need was good public schools. As CEO, he often said that about 60 percent of the locals who applied to work at Caterpillar were rejected for lack of basic math or writing skills.
In retirement, Oberhelman still lives in the Peoria area, and he’s currently active in a major campaign to reverse the population decline by attracting highly educated professionals to town. The campaigners are targeting professionals who earn at least $117,000 a year—the median household income in Peoria is about $53,000—and who want to live in a homey place that’s good for families. In other words, the mythical Peoria. However much the campaigners may agree with Dabrowski, they don’t want to help him throw a spotlight on the troubled local schools for fear of scaring people away.
The data Dabrowski based his presentation on—the numbers Governor Pritzker called “wrong”—are in fact the state’s own data. The Illinois State Bureau of Education has a big public database where anyone can look up information about the roughly 4,000 public schools in the state—everything from per-student spending to how many teachers are teaching subjects they’re not licensed for. The numbers can be sliced and diced by factors like race, grade and income.
All 50 states must make public-school data public in order to get federal funding. The U.S. Department of Education requires certain statistics, like standardized test results and graduation rates. The states are free to provide additional information beyond that.
Dabrowski said he started browsing in the database in 2020, when Lori Lightfoot, then mayor of Chicago, announced that the city’s graduation rate was at a record high of 82.5 percent. Dabrowski didn’t see how 2020 could set a record for anything, since the schools had closed for the pandemic in mid-March, and everybody’s progress was set back.
As he and a colleague, John Klingner, combed through the data, they realized there was no correlation between graduation rates and student proficiency. Teachers’ competency ratings didn’t connect with student proficiency either. Nor did the amount of money spent per student. The town where the kids scored highest, with 85 percent reading at grade level, was Aviston, population 2,340—and it ranked second-to-last on spending per child, just $7,488. The Peoria school district was spending a little more than twice that and getting dismal results.
Illinois bases its reading and math proficiency rates on standardized testing. It has to, to get federal money. But officials would much rather talk about other metrics. One that’s popular now is the Student Growth Percentile, which tracks how much student learning has grown during the year. The State Board of Education says it “represents Illinois’ commitment to fairness and equity,” because a child who starts the year at a disadvantage can still end with a high growth score, whether or not he reads at grade level. This year the state added another metric, the Equity Journey Continuum.
“All I want to know is whether someone can read,” said Dabrowski.
In 2011,researchers at the Annie E. Casey Foundation showed that the transition from third to fourth grade is a critical milestone. From fourth grade on, students have to read to learn science, social studies, even math. If they pass into fourth grade when they’re still struggling to read, they tend to fall farther and farther behind and never catch up. The Foundation said such kids were four times as likely to drop out. Since then, a number of states have been experimenting with laws that make children repeat third grade if they can’t read at the third grade level.
Illinois isn’t among them. When Dabrowski raised the issue in testimony before the education appropriations committee in Springfield, he met with hostility. “How much time did you spend in third-grade classrooms?” one lawmaker demanded.
That woman at the bus stop in Peoria had a point when she told the Sun-Times that politicians were too busy fighting each other to attend to the “real problems” of their constituents. This year Governor Pritzker has been positioning himself as a kind of antidote to Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida, who is seeking the Republican nomination for president.
When DeSantis railed about an “invasion” of immigrants and promised to complete Donald Trump’s unfinished border wall, Pritzker signed an executive order creating the Welcoming Illinois Office, to make the state more attractive to immigrants and refugees. After DeSantis said that 175 books had been banned by 23 school districts in Florida, Pritzker signed a bill making “book-banning” illegal in Illinois. After DeSantis signed a bill barring instruction on gender identity until the fourth grade, Pritzker called him “dangerous” and “homophobic.”
He has been silent on math and reading proficiency, but this month, Pritzker’s State Superintendent of Education issued an “Open Invitation to Florida and Texas Teachers,” saying that if they felt their states were hostile to their rights, they should come to Illinois, which was empowering teachers in any number of ways, and had just earmarked $45 million for hiring bonuses and other relocation incentives.
“Illinois’ commitment to the fundamental principles of public education—inclusion, equity and instructional rigor—pays off in student outcomes,” the letter said. Guess which numbers it didn’t mention?
Peoria’s last, best hope may be those well-paid, highly educated professionals. If it succeeds in landing some, their presence and civic-mindedness may restore the city to its former middlebrow glory. But while Peoria waits, America has lost its center.
About The Author:
Mary Williams Walsh worked at The New York Times as a reporter covering the intersection of finance, public policy and the aging population. Her work included pensions; public debt; bankruptcy, especially Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy; and insurance, including insurance provided by governments.
Before joining The Times, she worked for The Wall Street Journal and The Los Angeles Times, mainly in foreign bureaus. Her first foreign posting was to Mexico, during a painful debt crisis that engulfed Latin America from the Rio Grande to Argentina. She has been struck to find some of the same forces at work in the United States today, in places like Puerto Rico.
She has received a George Polk Award for reporting on how companies sell medical supplies to hospitals, and a Society of American Business Editors and Writers award for reporting on public pensions.
She grew up in Wisconsin and graduated from the University of Wisconsin. She was a Walter Bagehot Fellow at Columbia University's Graduate School of Business, where she learned how to read a balance sheet, among other things. Later she was a Nieman fellow at Harvard, where she blissfully forgot all about balance sheets and studied music composition.
She joined News Items in January 2023 and serves as its managing editor and financial columnist.
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