Lawmakers put the brakes on governor’s education agenda

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In January, Gov. Rod Blagojevich announced an ambitious agenda for his second legislative session, with a focus primarily on education.

He called for dismantling the state Board of Education, increasing the minimum amount of per-pupil funding by $250, bringing responsibility for construction and some personnel functions under state oversight, banning pop and candy in schools, mandating community service for high school students and sending free books to pre-school children.

Six months later, none of that happened.

The governor’s office, however, still claims victory. “From our perspective, the cornerstone of the governor’s education plan – overhauling the ( Illinois) State Board of Education – is going to happen,” says Blagojevich spokeswoman Rebecca Rausch.

On July 24, two months after the traditional end-of-May adjournment, lawmakers finally settled on a budget deal that will increase minimum per-pupil spending , but only by $154. The budget bill now awaits the governor’s signature.

Chicago schools will get some $72 million more in general state aid, less than the roughly $100 million the district was hoping to get with the proposed $250 per-student increase. CPS spokesman Peter Cunningham says budget cuts are expected, but officials have not yet determined where those cuts will be made.

Legislators also agreed to let the governor replace a majority of the members of the state board and make other changes, including setting up a voluntary purchasing system that districts can voluntarily participate in. Blagojevich won other smaller victories, such as securing an extra $30 million for early childhood education. Chicago stands to get an estimated $11 million of that money, part of some $40 million in categorical and other grants the district may get; those numbers have not yet been finalized.

But while the governor’s headline-grabbing proposals largely flamed out, lawmakers sent him a host of other bills aimed at reducing the dropout rate, especially among Latino students. One bill will raise the compulsory school attendance age to 17 from 16.

Lawmakers also bailed out new teachers in danger of losing their certification because of a stringent class requirement, and kept health insurance benefits for retired teachers.

POLITICS AT CENTER STAGE

Those efforts, though, were largely overshadowed by two showdowns involving the freshman governor.

The telegenic Blagojevich initially tried to take the spotlight by casting himself against the state Board of Education, calling it a “Soviet-style bureaucracy.” Then, as with many great dramas, a more enigmatic and powerful adversary emerged.

House Speaker Michael Madigan, a fellow Chicago Democrat, thwarted many of Blagojevich’s initiatives. The disagreement between the two, which both men insist is not personal, forced the overtime session and gave Republicans considerably more leverage on the budget and other issues.

Because bills passed after the end of May require a three-fifths majority to pass, the governor and his fellow Democrats, who control both the House and Senate, had to strike a deal with at least some Republicans.

The deal they reached would have included $389 million in new money for elementary and secondary education, including various categorical funds . But in order to find the money for the increases, legislators cut $6.3 million earmarked for state tests in social studies and writing, as well as new tests (to be launched in 2006) in fine arts and physical education.

B lagojevich and Senate President Emil Jones, D-Chicago, insisted that the state pick up the tab for increased per-pupil spending, paying for it with new taxes and fees on businesses. If per-pupil spending had been raised by $250, as the governor and Jones wanted, it would have cost an extra $348 million. But the tax hikes died in the House.

Madigan was one of the few legislators in the House to vote for the tax hikes. But he frequently criticized the governor, especially late in the session, for trying to borrow heavily and spend more money than the state could afford.

Top Republicans in the House and Senate took sides with Madigan and added their own demands. Rep. Tom Cross, an Oswego Republican who heads the House GOP caucus, insisted that suburban schools get a bigger share of new education dollars than the governor and Jones had suggested.

(The state doles out most of the money it gives to local school districts in two ways: general aid, the bulk of which goes to poorer districts; and grants for specific services like transportation and special education. Suburban legislators, most of whom are Republicans, usually push for increases in the categorical grants, which help their schools more than increases in general state aid.)

A spokeswoman for the State Board of Education says the governor’s approach helped cause the protracted stalemate and doomed many of his ideas.

“It was just backfire after backfire after backfire,” says ISBE spokeswoman Karen Craven. The governor paid a high price for ignoring legislators and giving them misleading information, she claims. “I think the governor gets a report card of an ‘F.'”

DETAILS OF EDUCATION LEGISLATION

ISBE takeover

Drop-out prevention

Teacher certification

Other legislation

ISBE takeover

Background: Blagojevich initially proposed gutting ISBE, making it a think-tank and transferring most of its powers to a new cabinet-level Department of Education. He called for the new agency to centralize purchasing, school construction and employee benefits to save money that could be spent on instruction.

Politics: The first-term governor threw down the gauntlet for the upcoming session with an all-out assault on the board during his State of the State address. He barely touched on issues other than education in a speech that was more than an hour long, berating and accusing ISBE of causing “a bureaucratic nightmare of biblical proportions”—all while state Schools Supt. Robert Schiller sat in the front row.

Blagojevich had already taken the agency to task last year for its large backlog of teacher certification renewals—months after he cut ISBE’s budget for the Chicago regional office, which had been handling those renewals.

The state’s two largest teachers unions supported the governor’s proposal, which would have given a new panel controlled by union-appointed teachers, rather than ISBE, power over certification.

But Blagojevich quickly ran into legal and political obstacles. Many lawmakers questioned whether his plan was constitutional. Others feared the role politics would play in the new agency, especially in its duties to collect and disseminate information on students’ academic performance and districts’ financial health.

The governor’s brash style and vilification of the agency also raised questions among lawmakers, who were not convinced the changes would improve student performance. Blagojevich’s office also never provided details about the plan that lawmakers sought.

Outcome: Eventually, the legislative leaders agreed to a far less ambitious proposal. The state board would remain in place, but Blagojevich could replace seven of the nine members immediately and dismiss Schiller and other top staff.

Madigan called the agreement “window dressing” because Blagojevich would have been able to replace a majority of the board by January anyway. In fact, the governor has so far left three of the seats vacant

Accounting changes and voluntary purchasing programs for school districts, which the governor touted, are also included.

Details: SB 3000

Dropout prevention

Background: Besides raising the compulsory attendance age to 17 from 16, other bills would: establish “graduation incentives” programs designed to keep students enrolled in job training, community college or adult education programs; and mandate better tracking of drop-outs (who are often incorrectly reported by schools as transfers) and of drop-outs who reenroll in school.

Blagojevich proposed creating the GRADS program to help social service agencies keep at-risk Latino students in school with academic counseling, parent training, student placement in alternative schools and free legal services. The $2 million program would have paid for an advertising campaign and six “prevention centers” in Chicago (plus four elsewhere).

Politics: Sen. Miguel del Valle, D-Chicago, convened hearings of the Senate Education Committee last winter to study the high drop-out rate among Latino students. Schiller suggested some of the ideas that eventually reached the governor. They encountered very little opposition in the legislature.

Outcome: GRADS became a victim of the state’s tight fiscal situation and won’t be in this year’s budget. The other measures await Blagojevich’s signature.

Details: SB 2115, SB 2918 and SB 3109

Teacher certification

Background: Earlier this spring, thousands of new teachers faced the prospect of losing their teaching certificates because they could not fulfill state requirements for their initial certification.

Those teachers needed to take classes in which the instructor would visit their classrooms and evaluate their teaching skills. But because those classes are time-intensive, few schools offer them, leaving teachers with no way of qualifying for certification.

The new law gives teachers whose initial certificates expired in June a one-year extension. It also eliminates the special class requirement and makes a wide variety of certification-related changes.

Politics: The law scrapping the special class requirement was a win for the Illinois Education Association and Illinois Federation of Teachers . “That’s the whole purpose of student teaching,” says IFT spokesman Dave Comerford. Even the Republicans who initially proposed the requirement acknowledged that it wasn’t working.

Outcome: Signed into law on June 30.

Details: SB 1553

OTHER LEGISLATION

Grow Our Own Teachers

Sen. Iris Martinez, D-Chicago, introduced a new teacher-mentoring program to target parents and volunteers in at-risk schools. It would pair universities with community groups and others to help participants earn a teaching degree while they kept their jobs. Blagojevich signed the measure, but no money has been appropriated this year to start it. Details: HB 4688

Golden Apple Scholars

After Blagojevich proposed cutting Golden Apple from the budget, supporters and lawmakers rallied to save it. The budget agreement calls for $2.9 million in funding, less than the $3.8 million provided last year. The Golden Apple Foundation gives prospective teachers scholarships and matches them with mentors in return for a commitment to teach in at-risk schools, most of them in Chicago, for five years. Details: HB 7276

Mandatory community service

In January, Blagojevich said high school students should be required to perform 40 hours of community service before graduating. Although many districts, including Chicago, already have such requirements, lawmakers were skeptical about taking away local control of schools. The bill died.

Banning sweets

Concern over local control of schools also doomed a Blagojevich proposal to ban soft drinks, candy and junk food in school cafeterias. A debate over which items to include in the ban also helped kill its chances.

Early childhood education

The governor asked for a $30 million increase in early childhood education, part of a three-year effort to ramp up funding for those programs by $90 million. But because Blagojevich called for more spending increases in education than even in his original budget blueprint, all the education initiatives were in doubt. Rausch, Blagojevich’s spokeswoman, called the initiative “one of the governor’s top legislative initiatives.” The entire $30 million increase ended up in the budget deal.

School construction

Lawmakers held off on approving a budget for state-funded construction projects until at least November. That stalls a $2 billion school construction program the governor recommended in his budget outline. Madigan and Republicans were concerned about how the state would pay off the debt for the four-year initiative.

Daniel C. Vock is the Statehouse bureau chief for the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin. To contact him, send an e-mail to editor@catalyst-chicago.org.