September/October 2018

Theresa Kelly Gegen is editor of The Illinois School Board Journal.

Before he was named executive director of the Illinois Association of School Boards in July 2012, Roger Eddy was a coach, teacher, principal, and ultimately superintendent at Hutsonville CUSD 1, as well as a five-term member of the Illinois House of Representatives. This unique combination of educational administration work, coupled with legislative experience, made Eddy the IASB Board of Directors’ choice to be the sixth IASB executive director.

During his first year with IASB, Eddy said in an interview for the Association’s centennial celebration, “I think … the future for this Association will resemble the past in many ways. We are going to remember our mission.”

Upon his retirement in Summer 2018, the Journal spoke with Eddy about the continuing emphasis on that mission, the importance of public education, and the Association’s work in “lighting the way” for public school leaders in Illinois.

Issues in public education

“For the six years that I’ve been fortunate enough to be in this position, it’s cemented in my mind how valuable the work of this Association is to the mission of public education. This institution of public education in our society was created, in the early days of our democracy, to feed and support the democracy itself. Public education exists so every person could have the opportunity to receive a quality education, so that every person could fulfill their dreams and their desires. It enables the pursuit of happiness.”

“It’s all foundational,” Eddy continued, “and I think that the focus recently on equity is a return to that original purpose. The foundational purpose of public education in a democracy is to provide opportunity to every single person, every child. After a couple hundred years, the foundational principle of public education — the underpinning, of the very foundations of our democracy — is being reaffirmed.

“It got chipped away at, and there are those that continue to chip away at it by attempting to provide some individuals greater opportunity — vouchers and the myth of this experiment of charters. It wasn’t about trying to identify and replicate best practices. In the early 90s the theory was that these would be experimental opportunities to find out what really works well to educate children. That was the promise, but it just hasn’t turned out that way.”

“Instead, it is an attempt to provide some, and not all, what many believed were exceptional practices and better quality educational opportunities. Why provide these supposed higher quality opportunities for some, and not all? This is oppositional to the purpose of public education.”

Eddy adds that, even with picking “some, and not all,” the experiment hasn’t worked.

“Interestingly, results show that goals were never met. The students who were delivered the ‘exceptional practices’ these experiments were supposed to provide, really didn’t perform better. Now, when I see Illinois adopt a voucher program, it’s disheartening, choosing to support additional efforts at privatization.

“On the other hand, we are returning to the principle of equity — I’m pleased that equity is a focus and I hope it continues to be a focus for this Association and for all of the people who care about public education. It’s impossible to really support quality public education without supporting equity.”

Eddy joined IASB just prior to the founding of the Illinois Vision 20/20 effort for “fulfilling the promise of public education.” One of the original pillars of Vision 20/20 was equitable and adequate funding, and the state adopted the Evidence-Based Funding Model in 2017, reforming the state’s funding formula for K-12 public education. The work to fulfill the promise of equitable and adequate funding continues.

“So far, we’ve seen a commitment,” Eddy said. “I’m hoping at the same time we have created a more equitable funding system, policymakers don’t pass other public policies that eliminate the option for communities to support their schools beyond what the new formula says is adequate.

“There’s a true irony when you want to impose, from the state, policies that freeze local participation through property tax levies, in the name of somehow better public policy. Imposing a property tax freeze — it can be couched politically that this is protecting the property taxpayer, but it’s really taking away their right. I hope they really think through attempts to deprive folks the opportunity to support their schools. Because communities with what we consider the best opportunities, provide the most support. To take that away just doesn’t make any sense.

“The mandates are and continue to be, very, very, concerning. Everybody has good ideas. The problem isn’t the ideas, the problem is funding them. We’re not against mandates, we’re against not funding these priorities.   If it’s a priority, you sort that out by providing resources to enact it.”

Upon the passage of the Evidence-Based Funding Formula, Vision 20/20 is regrouping as well.

“Vision 20/20 is an educator-led effort that provided a blueprint,” Eddy said. “When you accomplish goals you can re-center and refocus. Many of the original goals of Vision 20/20 have met with great success. Vision 20/20 established itself as a brand. People ask at the Statehouse, ‘Is that a Vision 20/20 plan?’ When the answer is yes, the proposal has almost instant credibility. So, I’m excited about the refocus. We need to continue coming up with education ideas that meet the new round of challenges.”

One such challenge is the teaching shortage, impacting Illinois and the nation. Upon his retirement, Eddy said, “We need high-quality teachers in the classrooms. I have an affinity for young teachers. If I do anything at all in education, in my retirement, it may not be in the public policy or government arena.   It will be supporting the work of early-career teachers.

“The teacher shortage is multi-faceted, and one of the reasons is we’ve taken away the dedicated support for induction and mentoring programs,” Eddy continued. “The line item for that was eliminated. It would be wise to re-establish dedicated funding for teacher and principal induction and mentoring programs.”

Reflecting on other changes to public education since he began his career in education, Eddy said, “Most of the curriculum is essentially the same. They haven’t changed the laws of physics and factoring is still factoring. Math is still pretty much math, even when it’s repackaged and looks shiny. Of course, technology has made a huge impact.

“For me, the difference in almost 40 years I’ve been in the field is the anxiety of whether kids are safe at school, when kids have to worry about going to school. It concerns me that we haven’t provided the resources necessary — not the mandates, but the resources. If you ask 10 people, all 10 would say the safety of children is a priority — you have to be willing to fund it.

“If we can make airports safe, if we can make major sporting events safe, there has to be some way to make sure that schools are safe. Together we can accomplish that. We can’t wait for the next incident, or the next one. These things are cyclical, they reach a fever pitch, but the passion to make necessary commitments goes away. Then there is another incident. But we can never be comfortable. We have to increase mental health services and supports for kids in need, we have to be able to identify and not ignore. ‘See something, say something’ has to be followed by ‘Do something.’ I’m not suggesting a whole string of mandates. Communities will keep their kids safe. They just need the resources for it.”

Other things in education have changed and advanced, perhaps not always for the better.

“Dual credit opportunities, technology, and career-to-work opportunities have all been improvements.   I remember when I started we had an answering machine with a tape in it. When you went home on Friday, you were done. Communication has obviously changed tremendously. Now it’s 24/7. As far as that goes — including for kids — I’m not sure round-the-clock access is an improvement.”

Working for, and with, boards of education

Regarding the bigger picture in education, Eddy’s long-term advice for members of local school boards is to remind them of their local pictures, and includes “Hang in there.”

“Now, more than ever before, because of the school report card and everyone’s attempt to define what school boards are accountable for, schools have to take the responsibility to inform their communities what great things they are doing for kids, and how great their kids are, and their communities are, outside of the definitions others are trying to impose,” Eddy said.

“It’s imperative. We’re the advocates. We have to fight back against those who would grade us, but who don’t have any clue about what’s important to our children, to our local communities. Outside advocacy groups who think that they have the authority — given by whom I have no idea — to give public education a grade C or D?   Reject that. Reject any notion that others can define your own community and school district. Take on that responsibility yourself. Report what is important about your programs to your own communities.”

Given that, Eddy’s take on ESSA will not surprise:

“ESSA is a little better than NCLB but that’s like saying a tropical storm is better than a Cat. 1 hurricane,” Eddy remarked. “It is still not what we need, and it continues to wrongly attempt to define what a quality public education is with way too much reliance on assessment scores. Even after a 15-year lesson of NCLB on how bad it is to put your eggs in that basket — we’ve put way too many eggs in that basket. We devalue our children when we assign them a label based on how they do on a set of standardized assessments that cover only English, language arts, and math. That has to change. And we should never see students with special needs, or English Language Learning children, feel like they have let anyone down because of what they score on a test. But it happens — and that should be enough to tell us it’s a bad policy.

“Over the years, ESSA is going to become as non-credible as NCLB, because people still love their school districts.”

Eddy encouraged school board members to consider their local challenges and successes first.

“Focus on your own school and community and what is best for your kids and your community,” Eddy said. “Time goes fast, enjoy it, too. Enjoy the opportunity to serve on a board. It’s a lot of responsibility when taken as seriously as it should be. There are disappointments. People will disappoint you. Systems will disappoint you. But the rewards — seeing the results of what the community is able to do for its kids — are second to none. There are great challenges, but we can meet them and the rewards are greater than the challenges.”

The Association

Eddy’s successor at IASB is Thomas E. Bertrand, a 33-year educator who joined the Association this past summer after 16 years as superintendent of Rochester CUSD 3A. Bertrand’s arrival has mirrored Eddy’s, as both met with every member of the staff during the leadership transition.

“I had a great opportunity to interview everybody who worked here before I started. The defining moments of those conversations were collective — and led to the conclusion that everyone understood the mission,” Eddy said. “Everyone felt ownership, everybody is important to succeeding at our mission. It was a great reveal of the understanding of the Association.”

Eddy’s voice of experience for Bertrand includes enjoying the experience.

“You don’t have to tell a guy like Tom about leadership, or about how valuable the staff is,” Eddy said. “It’s hard to give a guy like Tom a whole lot of advice. We may have different areas of focus, but we are similar. Working with him during the transition was sometimes like hearing myself talk to myself.”

“I will tell him to enjoy his time here. Six years later, I can tell you that it gets hectic, but I encourage Tom to really enjoy it. It will go quickly.”

“Our association has to be in a position where we continually look at issues that are going to be at the forefront,” Eddy said. “The analogy that I use is Wayne Gretzky’s success was skating not to where the puck was, but where it was going. That’s one of the strengths of the Association — we’ve always had individuals who research and study work to try to stay ahead.

“One of the most important things I can convey is the fact that the services and supports that this Association provides to its members are premier,” Eddy continued. “Not just compared to other states, but compared to a standard of quality that delivers results to our members. Whether it’s policy services, general counsel services, board training and development, field services, advocacy services, communicating to our members on a regular basis — everything we provide is intended to be supportive of their work.”

Eddy kept a chart that showed, in the just over six years of his tenure as executive director, IASB retirements and other staff turnover resulted in “750 years retiring out the door since 2012 — many years of experience, and the wisdom that goes with it. Those roles have been filled by really good people, and we have not lost any of the premier services of the Association despite the turnover. The state of the Association is great. We are poised to continue to be the leader in public education advocacy.

“And that includes the Joint Annual Conference, the largest education conference in the country, with the quality we present.”

Eddy was reluctant to name names. “I don’t want to leave anyone out,” he said. But he noted in particular the leadership of Deputy Executive Director Ben Schwarm; Cathy Talbert, who retired in 2018 as Associate Executive Director for Field Services and Policy Services, and previous retirees and long-time contributors Melinda Selbee, Angie Peifer, and Pat Culler.

“We may not have their 700-some years of experience,” Eddy said, “But they created so much and they were involved in the transition, to support the new folks that have come in. I think we have provided the supports necessary for smooth transitions. I have every confidence that Dr. Bertrand will continue to provide the Association with the leadership to meet the challenges of the future.

“No matter who leaves, the mission remains, and everyone understands and supports it,” Eddy concluded. “We have really, really, really good people.”

Editor’s note

Eddy and his wife Becca have raised five children. Eddy predicts much of his newfound free time will be spent with a few of his favorite things: his grandchildren, baseball, and watching his grandchildren play baseball. He and Becca plan to winter in Naples, Florida. “Next time you hear ‘wind-chill factor’ or ‘polar vortex,’ think of me,” Eddy said with a smile.