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Illinois Governor Will Have a Tough Time Killing State Board of Education PDF Print E-mail
Commentary/Politics - Illinois Politics
Tuesday, 03 February 2004 18:00
Governor Rod Blagojevich won a lot of legislative victories last year. He rammed through a $10-billion pension-funding plan, increased taxes and fees, enacted several bills that protected workers, and killed an attempt to expand gambling.

But his success on the big stuff last year might or might not translate into passage of his top priority this year: eliminating the Illinois State Board of Education, which he has compared to a “Soviet-style” bureaucracy.

On every major victory last year, the governor had the backing of both Democratic legislative leaders, House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President Emil Jones. House GOP Leader Tom Cross also supported several of the bills.

Big-business lobbyists were instrumental in passing the governor’s $10-billion pension-bailout bill after the governor agreed to take some tax hikes off the table. That backing helped the governor pick up a few Senate Republican votes.

Blagojevich’s State Board of Education proposal is different. If the governor thought he could destroy the board with one fell swoop (an over-the-top attack that made up most of his State of the State address), he has failed. Nobody is running for the exits like they did last year when he said he would veto any gambling-expansion bill.

It doesn’t help that the governor really doesn’t have the facts on his side. The board’s state-funded administration costs are only about 0.3 percent of all money spent on education. And local school-administration costs are only a piddling 2.5 percent of all education spending.

The governor made a big deal about how only 46 percent of all education money found its way into the classroom, but he was either horribly misinformed or deliberately skewed the numbers for his own purposes. That 46 percent is, basically, teacher salaries. It doesn’t include textbooks, school supplies, computers, heat, speech teachers, and teacher-pension payments – all integral aspects of classroom funding.

Plus, unlike last year, when he had the backing of both Dem leaders for his big plans, neither Jones nor Madigan is enamored with his State Board of Education idea. Jones, a true fighter for education funding, is not convinced that the proposal will make much difference. The people surrounding Madigan appear to be almost overtly hostile to the proposal, and Madigan has refused to say anything. House GOP Leader Cross has also been keeping his powder dry.

Jones’ top schools priority has been to treat education funding as an entitlement. For years, schools usually got whatever was left over after the governor and legislators funded noneducation programs. Jones would reverse that and fund schools – with specific levels and increases built in – just like welfare or Medicaid.

Trouble is, the governor appears to want to use his state-board idea to draw attention away from a less-than-stellar increase in education funding this year. Instead of giving schools a lot more new money, the governor will claim he can find ways to save the schools hundreds of millions of dollars, so not a lot of new cash will be needed. This runs directly counter to Jones’ ideology.

Madigan doesn’t support Jones’ entitlement idea, so even if Jones and Blagojevich could come to some sort of arrangement, Madigan might not go for it.

But all hope is not lost. Last year, the governor proposed eliminating all of the Regional Offices of Education and their elected regional superintendents. Local school officials banded together and forced the governor to back away from his proposal and simply reduce the number of offices. Some think those same players can force the governor to abandon his state-board idea.

There might be a problem with running a direct line between the two examples. Lieutenant Governor Pat Quinn’s annual survey of school principals shows that the majority (61.1 percent) believe the state board’s operation is “satisfactory.”

However, the State Board of Education’s overall rating showed that only 13.9 percent of principals believed its operation was “excellent.” By contrast, 60.8 percent of principals rated the regional superintendents’ offices as “excellent.” If the governor can entice the locals with a few carrots this spring, he might be more successful at splitting the state board’s local support than he was last year with the regional offices.

Blagojevich can also control the debate this spring if he stands by his budget proposal to the end. If he de-funds the board and refuses to budge, legislators, eager to avoid a protracted battle, might eventually be persuaded to go along with him.

Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter. He can be reached at (http://www.capitolfax.com).
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