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Meet Your Candidates: Ralph Martire, District 90 School Board Member

Fiscal policy think tank director runs for District 90 board.

Ralph Martire, a River Forest resident, is one of three candidates running uncontested for a spot on the District 90 School Board.

and incumbent James Weiss will also appear on the ballot. (Editor's note: Weiss was sent a candidate questionnaire, but has not returned it.)

Martire currently serves as executive director of a bipartisan economic and fiscal policy think tank called the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability.

Patch: District 90's Board of Education has recently been considering a full-day kindergarten program.  What are your thoughts on this?

Ralph Martire: Full day kindergarten is certainly a good idea, and merits consideration.  It can help in a child’s development (socially as well as academically), and has the added benefit of making scheduling somewhat easier for parents who have other children in grade and middle school.  That said, the academic benefits of full-day kindergarten are most significant in poor, low-income and low middle-income areas, where parent involvement is educating a child, primarily through reading and reinforcement, is less consistent than in upper middle-income to affluent communities.  River Forest is a relatively affluent community—so the academic benefits of full-day kindergarten will not be as pronounced in District 90 as in other areas of the state.  The cost of implementing full-day kindergarten then must be weighed against available resources and other potential uses of those resources, to determine whether full-day kindergarten is the best use of District 90's money.  I have been provided a solid briefing on full-day kindergarten from District 90, but have not had the opportunity to fully make the cost/benefit analysis required to have a final position at the moment.

What’s your impression of the quality of schools in District 90?

My wife and I moved to River Forest in 2001 specifically because of the high quality of the public schools.  District 90 has consistently performed very well academically and has focused on educating the whole child—both of which are laudable.

Do you approve the current budget size and how the money is being spent?  Yes

Has the federal No Child Left Behind Act been a positive in your opinion?

No, NCLB has not been positive.  Although the concept behind the legislation is certainly laudable, ensuring every child is learning and achieving academic, the law itself is fundamentally flawed.  The most significant flaws in the legislation involve: (i) how it measures whether a school district is making “adequate yearly progress”; (ii) the unrealistic goal of having 100% of children at grade level by a date certain; and (iii) its punitive nature.

NCLB measures adequate yearly progressing by comparing how, for example, this y3ear’s group of third graders did on the state achievement test versus last year’s group of third graders.  This is an apple-to-oranges comparison that does not reveal anything about individual student achievement or growth academically.  Not only are the tests different year-to-year, but so are the kids.  Rather than informing a district and parents about progress (or lack thereof) academically, the current evaluation metric mostly shows which year had smarter kids—or easier tests.  Far better to use the growth model of evaluating student achievement, which tracks the progress each individual child makes as he or she moves through the grade levels.

Moreover, NCLB evaluates academic progress by subgroup, including those children who have learning disabilities. A school district can have virtually all its children where they should be academically, yet not show improvement on test scores in one subgroup, and be labeled as “failing”.  This does nothing positive and in fact will go a long way in reducing the public’s confidence in the education system—even in communities with excellent schools.

In any endeavor involving people—and children count as people—it is a fool’s errand to expect 100 percent performance—period.  The only way to achieve that result is to “dumb-down” the test and lower what constitutes a passing score thereunder.  In fact, the states that have done the best overall under NCLB—like Mississippi—have indeed lowered what constitutes “passing” and dumbed-down the tests.  That is a perverse outcome quite contrary to the stated goals of NCLB itself.

Finally, NCLB punishes school districts that fail to show adequate yearly progress by taking financial resources away from them.  I fail to see how cutting resources will lead to implementation of better academic programming, more technology in the classroom, and better teachers.

Who was your favorite teacher, and why? 

My favorite teacher was Mr. Ewing, who I had for A.P. History in High School.  He was my favorite because he challenged us to think critically had high expectations for our performance (in fact, he would return a paper he felt wasn’t up to snuff without grading it—he’d just draw a shovel on the top and make us do it over) and encouraged us to be involved in our own education.

What do you see as some future issues facing District 90 in the next ten years?  How will you address those issues?

There are a number of challenges that will face District 90 in the near future.  These will include both educational policy as well as fiscal considerations.   In some instances fiscal shortcomings will impact educational offerings directly.  That being the case, let’s consider the fiscal challenges first.  Illinois state government’s finances are a disaster.  In the current fiscal year (FY2011), the state is running a deficit of over $9 billion in its General Fund.  That has caused legislators and the Governor to impose a $600 million “hold-back” on the appropriation made to K-12 education. That in turn means District 90 can expect Mandated Categorical funding for everything from special education to transportation to be severely cut (or “prorated” to use ISBE’s terminology) beginning in FY2012 and continuing thereafter. 

Because of the state’s long-term fiscal problems, District 90 can also expect growth in unfunded mandates from the state level.  This will strain property tax revenues, which in all likelihood will not continue to grow at historic rates, because of the housing crash and related long-term economic impacts of the recent recession—which has actually led to deflation over the last two months.  It also means grant funding for gifted student and STEM programs will be cut by the state.  The state’s unfunded pension liability (over $80 billion, currently), meanwhile, has legislators looking to shift more of the responsibility for pension funding to school districts.  If that happens, the fiscal consequences for District 90 could be severe.

Education policy-wise, District 90 has to: (i) ensure that it is meeting the needs of all its students, from the most gifted to those with the most needs; (ii) maintain and expand the richness of both academic and enrichment programs, while sustaining top scores on the standardized test metrics (this means the District must fight the temptation to lose other academic and enrichment offerings to focus too much on test prep); (iii) recognize that students learn to read through third grade, and read to learn thereafter, so getting young students proficient in reading by grade 3 is crucial, as is effectively helping those students who struggle with reading from third grade forward; (iv) expand STEM and gifted offerings; (v) resolve the crossing guard issue with the Village; (vi) continue to satisfy the needs and expectations of the community; and (vii) accomplish these educational policy objectives while maintaining a balanced budget and preparing for declining state and federal financial support and lower growth rates in property tax revenue.

It would be unwise for me to opine as to the best approach for resolving these issues until I am seated on the Board, and have the opportunity to review: all relevant District 90 data; all prior and current proposals; projected revenues, costs and educational/facility needs previously identified, and the respective priorities assigned thereto.  In general, I will take a data-based, best practices approach to resolving issues, in all cases constrained by realistic fiscal considerations.

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