With the State Board of Education under the governor's control, board members are not involved in determining funding for Illinois schools
- By Kim Grimshaw Bolton and Stephanie Banchero, Tribune staff reporter. Tribune staff reporter Diane Rado contributed to this re
- January 14, 2005
Usually by this time of year, the Illinois State Board
of Education has created a budget proposal and sent it to lawmakers and the
governor. Invariably, it has pushed for more money for public
This year, however, board members haven't even seen the budget
being crafted in their name. Instead, it is being written by the agency's staff
members, working with--or for--a governor's office that is determined not to
It is a scenario that has outraged education advocates and a
number of legislators. Some critics say it is exactly what they feared last year
when Gov. Rod Blagojevich took control of the agency.
should not be the sole authority on education and education funding in
Illinois," said state Sen. Dan Cronin (R-Elmhurst). "He is setting it up so his
voice is the only one that is heard."
Since its creation in 1970, the
state board had been an unavoidable and independent voice for public schools.
But since Blagojevich pushed through legislation allowing him to appoint a
majority of the board's members, the agency has devoted itself to doing his
The new board hired a 24-year-old chief of staff who previously
had driven Blagojevich's press van through rural Illinois. It approved a
Downstate charter school at the governor's urging, even though the previous
board had denied it four times.
While it remained silent on key education
issues, the board loudly publicized Blagojevich's proposed ban on violent video
games. The agency's annual roundup of state education issues even appears on
letterhead featuring "Rod Blagojevich, Governor" in large type.
is the lack of separation more obvious than in the creation of the state
For decades, the State Board of Education prepared its
own budget for funding public elementary and high schools. Educators across the
state relied on the board to advocate for the new money they felt their schools
needed. The board rarely disappointed.
This year, however, many expect
the board to be in lock step with the governor.
"For the first time since
the recorded history of man, the state board's budget will probably match
exactly what the governor plans to propose," said Dean Clark, one of two state
board of education members not appointed by Blagojevich. "I think there needs to
be a level of independence. By taking us out of the loop, it takes one more
voice away from the table, and I'm not sure that benefits the children of this
Clark also complained that the annual "condition of education"
report, which the board must send to state legislators by Friday, will, for the
first time in recent memory, arrive without a spending plan.Board members
haven't seen that report, either.
Agency staffers said Thursday they are
compiling the budget and will complete it before the governor's budget address
on Feb. 16. Board members would have to call a special meeting even to debate
the agency's budget before that date.
Randy Dunn, interim state
superintendent of education, acknowledged that his office is working closely
with the governor's staff to create a budget.
"It makes no sense for the
board to do this in isolation and then spend months fighting with the governor
over it," Dunn said. "We're opening an era of cooperation. We need a budget that
fits with the governor's overall state budget picture."
spokesperson for the governor's budget office, also defended the joint budget
"The State Board of Education relies heavily on state
funding, and it only makes sense that they build a budget that takes into
account the entire state budget picture and the state revenue picture," Carroll
said. "We are looking to [the state board] for direction and preparing the
Lou Mervis, who served on the state board for 17
years in the 1980s and '90s, recalled a much different atmosphere in those days,
including some pitched battles between his board and previous governors. Mervis
argued that the state constitution sets up just this kind of scenario, allowing
the board to lobby for what it thinks schools need, while giving the governor
the power to say what the state can afford.
Ultimately, lawmakers decide
how much to put into education.
"It comes down to the central question of
whether you want a board of education that says, `This is what we believe is
needed to educate the young men and women of this state,' or if you want a state
board that says, `This is all the money the governor is going to give us so
we'll figure out how to allocate it,' " Mervis said. "I would argue that the
people of Illinois want the former."
Last year's fight over the education
budget was one of the nastiest, providing the catalyst for Blagojevich's
makeover of the state board.
In January 2004, the state board
approved--against the wishes of the governor--a $7.1 billion budget, calling for
a $600 million increase over the previous year.
The governor was incensed
that the board would suggest such a large increase while he was struggling to
plug a $2 billion hole in the state budget.
A few weeks later,
Blagojevich launched a blistering attack on the board and proposed creation of a
new cabinet-level department of education that would answer directly to him. The
board would have been relegated to a think tank under the proposal.
lawmakers argued that the State Board of Education should maintain some
independence from the governor's office. But lawmakers gave the governor the
authority to replace seven of nine board members.
Critics charge that
Blagojevich also has silenced another voice on education, the Education Funding
By state law, the five-member board composed of business
leaders and educators is supposed to recommend, every two years, a minimum
per-pupil spending level. Using state and national research, the group is
supposed to send lawmakers a report on Jan. 1 in odd-numbered
Since Blagojevich took office two years ago, four members have
either resigned or their terms have expired. The governor has not replaced any
of them. As a result, no report was sent to lawmakers this year as required by
"This report provides an accountability measure that shows how far
we are from providing a decent education for our students, and I hope that it is
not being swept under the rug by this administration," said Bindu
Batchu, spokeswoman for A+ Illinois, a non-profit
group that seeks increased school spending. "In a democracy, you expect more
voices out there. You can't have one voice making all the