Just as the United States is known as the land of opportunity, it is also understood that education is the key to unlocking an individual’s potential. The Education is Key oral history project focuses on many of the facets of education in our state, telling a story that continues to evolve in our complex and dynamic society. This project preserves the history of education in Illinois, and studies both the triumphs as well as the many challenges that educators, students and community leaders face today.
The Illinois Community College System is one of the state’s hidden gems. Consisting of 39 community college districts, with forty-eight individual colleges and one consortium, the state’s many community colleges insure that a quality education is available to Illinoisans throughout the state. In fact, more students are enrolled in the state’s community colleges than are enrolled in the state's many four-year institutions. The Community College System performs many functions beyond its well known role as preparatory schools for traditional four year institutions. These include worker retraining, adult education, and certification programs. They are a point of pride for communities across the state.
Over the past several decades, Illinois family farms have experienced a revolution of sorts, steadily growing in acreage as they also become more specialized. One result of this trend has been a steady depopulation of many of the state’s small towns and rural areas; which in turn has led to the need to reorganize or consolidate school districts. Few things are more traumatic for otherwise vibrant communities than losing a piece of their identity when a cherished school is closed. Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library volunteer Philip Pogue, himself a career educator, has chronicled that story in an important collection of interviews conducted in 2010 and 2012.
In 1985, the Illinois Legislature passed the Educational Reform Act, a landmark piece of legislation that included 169 separate reforms. Once signed by Governor Jim Thompson, it fundamentally transformed public education in Illinois. Illinois’s 1985 reforms were in response to “A Nation At Risk,” a provocative federal report calling for a revitalization of the nation’s public schools. This project examines how Illinois’s law was created in the early 1980’s, and how the State Board of Education and the local school districts dealt with implementing the bill’s many reforms. Finally, we look at the law’s legacy – its successes, its modifications, and in some cases, some of the reforms that did not last. Regardless, the reforms started in 1985 changed the relationship between the state and the local school districts from that time forward.