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ILLINOIS SCHOOL BOARD JOURNAL


May/June 2013

Centennial celebration ...
Space race and public education follow same trajectory
by James Russell

James Russell is IASB associate executive director for communications.

Part III — 1953-1972

This is the third in a year-long series that will detail the history of the Illinois Association of School Boards from its inception in 1913 through its 100th anniversary on December 13, 2013.

The world was changing dramatically in the twenty year period following the end of World War II. The “Baby Boom” generation was in its infancy and all of its ramifications were felt most in local school districts. Enrollments were bulging, as were expenses to keep up with the staffing and construction required to house the new population.

Technology was also making its impact on local schools – with television becoming a significant new tool, or distraction, according to many. But it was another technological advance that had an even greater impact on U.S. public education and one that continues to this day.

The Russians successfully launched Sputnik 1 on October 4, 1957, the first-ever satellite to orbit the earth. The impact of this milestone would be felt for decades, credited by many as the pre-cursor to the space and arms race in what became known as the “Cold War” between Russia and the United States.   This competition not only altered national public policy and political strategy, but it became the focal point for how the public viewed its schools.

The first of what would be many articles on the subject appeared in the May-June 1958 issue of The Illinois School Board Journal. Dr. Charles Howell, director of research for Northern Illinois University, saw the potential for damage to the image of public education. “That a 24-inch ball circling the earth where no such object was to be seen before should have a prolific effect on the education program of an entire nation is amazing,” he wrote.

“That it should take some such impetus to make a people examine carefully one of their most important institutions is in some ways absurd. And yet that is what has happened.”

The source of introspection came not so much from the success of Sputnik; rather, it was the failure of the U.S. to beat or match the Russian effort that caused the consternation.   American efforts to duplicate the satellite launch failed several times, resulting in significant embarrassment.   Another Journal author, Robert E. Pruitt, superintendent of Forest Park Public Schools, captured this sentiment when he described the frustration this way:

“In December 1957, we were startled when our own Sputnik dribbled out over the beaches of Florida that we were not to catch up just by deciding that we would. Russia credits good education for their accomplishments, so we turn also to education with numerous quick, cheap answers. There is no doubt that the answer is education, but the process will not be quick or cheap.”

His words were prophetic. Less than a year after the launch of Sputnik 1, Congress passed the National Defense Education Act, pouring billions of dollars into U.S. education. Today’s ongoing debate over how U.S. students match – or fail to match – their overseas counterparts in math and science scores can be attributed directly to the Sputnik launch and the Cold War era of the 1950s and 60s.

Of course, that was not the only thing occupying the attention of Illinois educators and school boards.

School finances and state funding were part of an ongoing debate. The state’s School Problems Commission concluded in 1953 that calculations of federal and state aid should be changed, so that districts that depended on both were not penalized. And in 1970, IASB outlined its position and rationale on public school financing in the state Constitutional Convention debate. The Association recommended that the convention readopt Article VIII, Section 1: The General Assembly shall provide a thorough and efficient system of free schools, whereby all children of this state may receive a good common school education.

The rationale was equally emphatic: “It is essential that the state’s responsibility for education be acknowledged in the constitution because the General Assembly membership is subject to change. If the responsibility is not stated in the constitution, a general assembly could enact legislation placing the complete burden of financing, etc., on the local district.”

School finances were not the only concern of the Association during this era. In 1955, a joint commission of IASB and IASA concluded an 18-month study on the working relationship of school boards and their chief administrators. The result of this study was a document entitled, “Statement of Principles Basic to Effective Cooperation,” that was presented to and adopted by both associations.

The state’s first Open Meetings Act took effect in 1958 and was met with little resistance or fanfare. “The new state law dealing with official meetings of public agencies of the state, including school boards, is nothing new, but merely reaffirms what had been considered good public policy,” according to an article in the June 1958 issue of the School Board News Bulletin.

That year, IASB board of directors appointed a committee to evaluate member services and concluded two things: 1) that present services could be improved and enlarged; 2) that many members do not know what Association services are available.

This era also saw a boom of new school construction.

In 1959 alone, Illinois voters approved 209 out of 230 bond issue elections. This 89 percent pass rate encompassed elections in 57 different counties. Similarly, voters approved 99 of 120 proposals to increase local education tax rates.   But finding enough space to house a burgeoning enrollment was frustrated by the fact that the state was experiencing a severe teacher shortage.

Between 1952 and 1972, Illinois public school enrollment skyrocketed by 1 million students (1.2 million to 2.3 million). However, teacher ranks were slow to keep pace. One reason was cited in an article published in the July-August 1953 issue of the Journal: “If our teachers continue to leave the profession to enter business and if our young people go directly into business, our teacher shortage will be increasingly harder to cope with,” said Arthur Adams, assistant superintendent of public instruction. His suggestion was to increase salaries, improve housing facilities for teacher families, encourage teacher participation in local communities, maintain school facilities, add funds for teacher training, and spread the message that “teaching is a basic need for the preservation of our way of life.”

As public school enrollment grew in this era, so did the Association. In fact, membership topped 1,000 districts in 1961. This included 954 school districts, three non-high school districts, and 43 county boards of school trustees. It was appropriate; therefore, that Association services and staff grew accordingly. In December 1972, at the conclusion of this twenty-year period, IASB named Harold P. Seamon to succeed B.B. Burgess as the Association’s third full-time executive director. Robert M. Cole, the Association’s first director, retired at the end of 1968, concluding 25 years of service.

IASB presidents

1952-53            Robert Krebs, Mt. Vernon

1954-55            Harold Dean, Mendota

1956                 Donald M. Stevenson, Elburn

1957-58            Harold S. Dawson, Champaign

1959-60            Joseph Ackerman, Chicago

1961-62            Junius Califf, Rock Island

1963                 Reid R. Tombaugh, Pontiac

1964                 Owen Marsh, Springfield

1965-66            Martin L. Cassell Jr., Barrington

1967-68            John Illyes, Palestine

1969                 Robert A. Jamieson, Peoria

1970-71            George H. Wirth, New Athens

1972-73            Edward C. Epstein, Crete-Monee

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