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Illinois recently received the unfortunate news that its bid to win more than $400 million for education in the federal government’s Race to the Top competition was unsuccessful.

Considering the time, teamwork and passion our state invested in this bid, we are certainly disappointed. But, as the historic abolitionist author Harriet Beecher Stowe once said: “Never give up, for that is just the place and time that the tide will turn.”

We believe our state has reached that point today.

Illinois is better off having competed in Race to the Top. This process helped lay a solid foundation for education reform, including plans for a results-based teacher and principal evaluation system, increased charter schools, tighter standards and deeper on-the-ground supports.

While Illinois may not have won the prize money, our widely-acknowledged challenges remain.

For every four students who enter high school in Illinois: One will drop out. Two will finish school, but be unprepared for work or further education. Just one will graduate ready for college and career. 

One of the most remarkable outcomes to emerge during this competition was the coming together of diverse stakeholders, including educators, politicians, unions and businesses. In supporting Illinois’ application, each put our children first.

The continuance of this unlikely coalition united by the common goal of improving the educational and life chances of our students is critical to achieving first-class public education in Illinois.

There is no question $400 million would have allowed Illinois to aggressively pursue the reforms that were proposed. But these monies, while significant, represent less than half of one percent of total education spending in Illinois each year.

We believe that Illinois can and now must begin to identify the proposed reforms that have the most impact and move forward without the federal funds.

The question is: Do we have the leadership, the commitment and the will to do so?

Innovative programs like STEM learning exchanges that link math and science class — work with real-world applications and experiences — are critical to engaging students and training tomorrow’s technology leaders.

With a new data system in the works, now is the time to build the capacity at the local level to put good information to use at the classroom and school level. And if effective teachers are the single biggest drivers of student achievement, let us continue the state push to develop tools to identify and support our very best teachers!

Thanks to Race to the Top, we have a blueprint for change. We hope business, civic and philanthropic leaders will join us to make this plan a reality.

If we pool our investments, we can still “race” here in Illinois. The future of our state — and children — depends on it.

Lou Mervis is the chairman of the Illinois Business Roundtable Education Task Force and Robin Steans is the executive director of Advance Illinois.

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