‘Wait till next year’ on school funding reform

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As the Illinois General Assembly races toward an April adjournment so lawmakers can hit the campaign trail before the November election, serious talk about education funding reform has been put on the back burner until 2007.

A+ Illinois, a coalition of organizations that support funding reform, is using the election season to start building support for legislation that could be before the General Assembly as early as next year. To expand its outreach, the group has hired three community organizers to work in Chicago, the collar counties and downstate Illinois.

“We’re not just organizing with groups that are interested in education, but constituents that fall outside the traditional education label, whether that’s farmers or groups interested in economic development.” says Bindu Batchu, A+ Illinois campaign manager. “Good schools are the anchors for strong communities.”

Batchu believes that Illinois is reaching a tipping point and more groups realize the need for funding reform.

“It’s not as hard of a sell as you might think,” Batchu says. “There may be differences of opinion about how a bill should look, but we are finding a lot of people at the local level becoming interested in this movement.”

The group is not endorsing candidates, but it is paying close attention to contested primaries that involve key lawmakers from the Peoria and Chicagoland areas, including state senators Kimberly Lightford (D-Maywood) and Don Harmon (D-Oak Park) and state representatives Calvin Giles (D-Chicago) and Michael K. Smith (D-Canton). All these legislators lead education committees or have oversight of the education budget.

Straw that broke the camel’s back

This year’s gubernatorial contest is especially volatile. Five Republicans are seeking their party’s nomination, and several have taken a “no new taxes” pledge. State Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka, considered the GOP frontrunner, has refused. Meanwhile, Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s own “no new taxes” pledge has sparked rebellion and hints of a third-party bid from within his own party.

At a January 25 debate, Topinka called such pledges “phony baloney,” arguing that governors need to consider all possible options to solve problems.

As a whole, the GOP candidates believe that the state can put more money into the classroom by cutting bureaucracy, via consolidation of districts and scaling back the Illinois State Board of Education. They are also leery of a tax swap.

“I’m not persuaded that the solution to the education funding problem is to raise taxes,” says Ron Gidwitz, a businessman and former state board president. “It’s an excuse to tax people more to use for other purposes.”

Blagojevich’s renewed promise not to raise taxes, made in his official re-election announcement, prompted the Black Legislative Caucus to call on him to either drop the pledge or present an alternative.

“It was the straw that broke the camel’s back. It means for the next four years there is no opportunity for meaningful education funding reform,” says state Sen. James Meeks (I-Calumet City), who has hinted at a third-party run for governor and accused Blagojevich of betraying core Democratic principles. Meeks, who won his seat as an Independent, could drain votes away from the governor in a race that could be very tight.

The governor, however, is banking on winning support with his 2007 education budget, which includes an increase of almost $400 million from last year and a far-reaching proposal for universal pre-school. Chicago would reap $100 million under the governor’s budget.

But finding the money depends on sweeping surplus money from special funds originally earmarked for specific services such as breast cancer research, as well as closing tax loopholes—a tactic the governor has tried through out his tenure, without much success.

Batchu argues that these are one-time solutions that do not provide long-term stability and also create more debt for future generations of taxpayers.

“At the same time, we are failing to provide a sound, basic education for every child,” Batchu adds.

At a hearing in late February, state Supt. Randy Dunn, whom Blagojevich hand-picked for the post, defended the budget against legislative critics who argued that the universal preschool plan was unrealistic and the budget focused too narrowly on early childhood education.

State Sen. Miguel del Valle (D-Chicago), vice chairman of the Senate Education Committee, also expressed frustration with the governor, saying he continues to ignore real solutions to the school funding problem and reneged on a promise to raise the per-pupil foundation level by $1,000. So far, Blagojevich has increased per-pupil spending by $604.

“It’s nice to have $400 million, but when you start dividing up the $400 million it doesn’t allow you to increase the foundation level to the recommended amount,” del Valle says.

The state still falls about $1,200 short of the $6,405 recommended by the Education Funding Advisory Board last year.

With many districts across the state facing financial struggles, Meeks observes, funding reform “is a problem that Springfield must address.”