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Out of the school budget loop

With the State Board of Education under the governor's control, board members are not involved in determining funding for Illinois schools

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 schools.

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 raise taxes.

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.

"The governor 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 bidding.

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.

Nowhere is the lack of separation more obvious than in the creation of the state education budget.

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 state."

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."

Becky Carroll, spokesperson for the governor's budget office, also defended the joint budget preparation.

"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 budget accordingly."

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.

State 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 Advisory Board.

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 years.

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 law.

"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 decisions."

Keywords

Education

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