Candidates shy away from school funding: Blagojevich, Topinka low-key on reform - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Candidates shy away from school funding: Blagojevich, Topinka low-key on reform

When 250 educators, parents, politicians and taxpayers were asked recently about the challenges facing public education in Illinois , they rattled off a long list:

Teacher shortages.
Outdated textbooks.
Children not ready for school, and graduates not ready for the real world.
Wide disparities from one district to the next.

The survey, released last week by the Illinois State Board of Education, shows that whoever wins the governor's race in November will face a monumental challenge in pleasing parents and taxpayers.

But underlying all those concerns is a larger-and largely overlooked-debate about how Illinois should pay for public schools. Neither major party candidate has tackled it head-on, even as warnings spread.

Most districts continue to operate in the red. Statewide, school districts spent $1.2 billion more than they took in from tax collections and other revenues in 2005--a deficit 40 times larger than a decade earlier, according to state board records.

The state's contribution to school budgets is one of the lowest in the nation, and local communities, which pay most school bills, continue to reject tax increases. Wealthy districts spend thousands more on their schoolchildren than less affluent districts.

With the election just weeks away, neither Democrat Gov. Rod Blagojevich nor Republican state Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka, the two major party candidates for governor, has inspired the confidence of educators and special-interest groups who are calling for significant reforms.

"I don't see a vision for where we ought to be, nor do I see a dissatisfaction with where we are. And that is very, very troubling," said Jeff Mays, president of the Illinois Business RoundTable.

In an unprecedented move, the Illinois Education Association, a powerful teachers union, declined to endorse Blagojevich or Topinka, saying neither has put forth a long-term financial fix that would help schools and take the burden off local taxpayers.

Calls both bad

Jack Roeser, who chairs a conservative taxpayer foundation in suburban Chicago , put it bluntly: "They're both so bad that you could flip a coin."

As for Green Party candidate Richard Whitney's chances, Roeser said, "That's hopeless."

Whitney is the only candidate for governor who supports a controversial "tax swap" favored by some advocates that would raise the state income tax for education and reduce reliance on local property taxes.

Blagojevich has pledged not to raise state income or sales taxes, instead proposing a sale or long-term lease of the state lottery to produce billions for basic state aid, textbooks, school construction, more preschool programs and more full-day kindergarten programs, among other improvements.

Topinka has not made a no-tax pledge, but she has not endorsed a tax-swap plan either.

What she has proposed is a gambling expansion that would establish a land-based casino in Chicago to help fund basic state aid, expanding preschool and full-day kindergarten and expanding special reading programs and teacher training, among other initiatives.

The plan also would provide more than $2 billion for property tax relief, allowing for a two-year freeze on the school portion of tax bills.

The A+ Illinois campaign, a coalition pushing a tax swap, gave Blagojevich an F in the area of "meaningful property tax relief," saying the governor continues to rely on local taxes that fuel inequities between rich and poor districts. Topinka got a C-minus for proposing at least temporary property tax relief.

State dollars make up less than 30 percent of revenues to districts statewide, according to state board figures. That is one of the lowest contributions to public schools by any state in the nation, according to federal education data.

At the same time, the state's so-called "tax cap" limits what districts can collect locally without permission from voters, who have been loath to approve increases.

Tax watchdog groups say districts need to control their spending, but school administrators say they are struggling to keep up with rising expenses, from health insurance to fuel costs. They often resort to borrowing or dipping into reserves.

State records show that schools statewide showed new restraint in spending in 2005, with expenditures going up less than 2 percent--the smallest increase in at least 10 years.

But educators blame those tight purse strings for cuts in faculty, increased class sizes, reduced or eliminated academic and extracurricular programs and delayed building repairs or improvements.

At the same time, schools are under more pressure than ever to ensure students are meeting standards under No Child Left Behind education reforms. Schools where students consistently fail achievement tests face a variety of sanctions.

Bindu Batchu, manager of the A+ Illinois campaign, said, "I think we've gone from bad to worse, and what I mean is not just financially. Schools are in a worse financial position, the academic targets are much higher and the consequences for not meeting them are more severe, so we're asking school districts to cross the academic finish line with a couple of flat tires."

Blagojevich has earned praise from some quarters for increasing basic state aid per student by $774 since taking office, expanding slots for preschool students and raising high school graduation requirements.

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