Civic, grassroots leaders leave Springfield empty-handed

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A wide range of education advocates, from the grass roots to the corporate leaders, came up empty handed in Springfield this session, and a leading Chicago senator predicts more of the same next year.

Next year’s session promises to be “cautious and short,” predicts state Sen. Lisa Madigan (D-Chicago), the leading democrat on the Senate Education Committee. “We’ll be in all-new districts and everybody’s up for re-election.”

Losers included the Chicago Board of Education, which wanted money to fuel its capital program; Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago, which wanted more charter schools; the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC), which wanted more state aid; and the Chicago School Reform Cooperative, which wanted more money under the control of local schools rather than central office.

What did come through was the recommendation of Gov. George Ryan’s Education Funding Advisory Board on state aid — $460 million for the state, including $64.5 million for Chicago. Even William Burns, MPC’s education and tax policy manager, says that’s not bad because it wasn’t clear that state legislators were going to support an increase at all.

House Bill 3050 bumped up the “foundation level” for education funding, which is the amount that the state guarantees that all districts will be able to spend on basic educational programs. Most districts, including Chicago, are unable to raise the full amount from local property taxes; state funding makes up the difference. Next year, state funding to CPS will rise from $726 million to $790 million.

In the end, the governor and legislative leaders cut a deal, Burns explains. A provision in the new law expands the “poverty grant”– an aid program to support supplemental programs for low- income students — to include the wealthiest districts, even if those serving only a handful of low-income students.

Chicago schools will get $148 million of the money appropriated for the Illinois FIRST public-works program. CPS officials say they were already counting on getting that money, so it won’t allow an expansion of current construction plans.

Here is a rundown on other efforts:

* No charter school expansion Charter advocates, led by Leadership for Quality Education, pushed two bills, but neither cleared the House of Representatives. One measure sought to raise the cap on Chicago charters to 30 from the current 15. The other bill aimed to increase state funding for charters and to allow charter schools to borrow money for capital improvements. Both bills made it through the Senate, but stalled in the House.

First, advocates cut a deal with the Chicago Teachers Union—a powerful opponent. A provision was added to the funding bill that would have required charter schools to employ mostly certified teachers. But once the union was happy, Republican leaders turned against the bill, and it was defeated in a floor vote. “This bill was premature,” says state Sen. Madigan. “We really should wait a year or two” for solid evidence that existing charters are working well.

* State Chapter 1 Local school councils sent dozens of people to Springfield to lobby for their perennial concern: to get more state money into local school budgets. The 1988 Reform Act provided that so-called state Chapter 1 money, which then amounted to $300 million, would be shifted in phases from the central office budget to the budgets of local schools. However, a 1993 financial bailout for CPS delayed the final transfer of funds. Two years later, the legislature capped the local school amount at the 1993 level, depriving local schools of $32 million.

Last year, the Chicago School Reform Cooperative and other reform groups went to Springfield to ask the legislature for the final $32 million. More students qualify for the poverty funding, they argued, and inflation has eaten away at the funds. But the board staunchly opposed the transfer of funds.

The same battle was replayed this year– “a big scream-and-yell fest,” Madigan says. By the end of the session, board officials made a counter offer of $2 million, which was folded into one of the failed charter-school bills.

*Pension funding Paul Vallas again pushed hard for the state to increase its contribution to the Chicago Teachers Pension Fund. This time, CPS sought an extra $18 million a year, which would have freed up district money for other programs, such as school building and repairs. (See CATALYST, March 2001.) Downstate legislators, however, viewed the request as a handout to Chicago, says Rep. Mary Lou Cowlishaw, the Republican spokesman for the House education committee. The House did, however, pass a resolution, which the Senate did not consider, to have a commission look at the issue.

*Alternative schools A coalition of organizations, including the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless and the Children and Family Justice Center at the Northwestern University Law School, mounted a spirited campaign to kill a proposed state alternative-school program. Instead, they got it modified.

The groups fear the new alternative schools could become a dumping ground for kids who might be better served by mainstream programs. Broad eligibility criteria allow school districts to declare students “at-risk,” and then put them into alternative settings. In the initial draft of the bill, for example, any low-income student could have been labeled “at-risk” and transferred to an alternative school. The initial draft also did not give parents the right to appeal a decision to send their child to alternative program.

The advocates worked out a deal to amend the proposal. The amended version easily passed both houses. “The bill as passed is certainly an improvement to the bill that was drafted,” says lawyer Michelle Light of Northwestern Law School. However, the new law does not provide enough state guidance or monitoring to ensure that new alternative programs will be good ones, she contends.

But Shiela Radford-Hill, the Illinois State Board of Education official who will oversee the alternative-school program, disagreed. “We can provide the necessary oversight and technical assistance to ensure that districts pay appropriate attention to the dumping-ground issue.”

The Chicago advocates “have visions of bad things happening to kids,” she adds. “But my contention is that bad things are already happening to kids, and this won’t make it worse, and could make it better.”

The bill does not require any changes to existing alternative school programs, like the ones sponsored by the Chicago Public Schools.