There are winners and losers in the state's education system. Schools in wealthy regions can afford to spend $25,000 on each student, while those in poor areas can only afford about $5,000 per student.
In recent years, the debate on school finance reform has focused on finding ways to increase and equalize school spending. At the heart of the debate is whether Illinois should shift the burden of funding elementary and secondary schools from the local property tax to the state income tax. But voters' fears of tax hikes keep that issue under the political table.
Yet finding ways to raise education dollars is only one side of the equation. How the state spends the money is the other. Distribution of Illinois tax dollars affects students' ability to learn and ultimately grow into productive, responsible adults.
George Clowes, senior fellow with the Chicago-based Heartland Institute, takes that a step further. "If we fail to improve the education of our students for very much longer, it's really going to affect the way that we compete with nations around the world."
He supports a completely different idea, a so-called choice-based approach wherein the money follows the student rather than the teacher — and parents, rather than administrators, decide how to spend their tax dollars.
To get to the root of Illinois' problem, however, researchers say everyone needs to take a step back. Reforming education isn't about raising the dollars, they say, as much as about results.
Case in point: The state has generally increased the amount of money put toward education — from $4.9 billion in 2000 to $6.5 billion this fiscal year. Some lawmakers and advocates ask why that additional money hasn't translated into more equitable educational opportunities in those schools with the highest percentage of minority and low-income students.
The question is, "What are we getting for our money?" Timing for this discussion couldn't be better. Illinoisans will get the chance November 7 to pick the person they want to lead the state for the next four years: Democratic incumbent Gov. Rod Blagojevich of Chicago, GOP state Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka of Riverside or Green Party candidate Rich Whitney of Carbondale.
While most of the attention centers on the candidates' revenue ideas, voters shouldn't be distracted from their plans for education quality.
Those plans were graded by the A+ Illinois coalition, which consists of more than 100 civic, education and business groups, among them AFSCME Council 31, which represents public employees, the nonprofit Center for Tax and Budget Accountability and the Metropolitan Planning Council. The coalition aims to improve education equity and reduce the state's reliance on property taxes in funding schools, mainly through a tax swap.
The group gave Blagojevich a "D-" for pledging not to raise income or sales taxes if he's re-elected. Instead, he would privatize the Illinois Lottery, which he says would garner up to $15 billion to fund his $6 billion education plan and pump $650 million into schools each year until at least 2025.
MarySue Barrett, president of the Metropolitan Planning Council and a member of the coalition, says the group dislikes the idea of selling state assets for one-time revenue sources.
Topinka didn't do much better on that score. She got a "D+" from the coalition for proposing a new casino in Chicago and authorizing expansion of the state's nine other riverboats. Topinka says she won't rule out a tax hike but would consider it a last resort. But she estimates her casino plan would generate $5 billion over four years, immediately funnel $650 million into schools and ensure $600 million each year thereafter. Her report card from the coalition notes that revenue idea also lacks stability.
Only Whitney supports a tax swap —though as a third-party candidate he's not getting much of a hearing on the issue. Because he didn't get on the November ballot until late August, he wasn't initially graded by A+ Illinois. His report card was scheduled to be available after press time.
Though A+ Illinois' report on Blagojevich and Topinka docks them for their revenue ideas, it rewards them for their efforts to help schools that have academically struggling and needy students.
For instance, both promise to raise the minimum amount guaranteed per student. Yet neither would reach the $6,400 level recommended by the Education Funding Advisory Board, which was created by a 1997 law and is responsible for making education funding recommendations to the General Assembly.
Those candidates' other initiatives resemble each other, with some differences in how they package the money. Both would dedicate $180 million to expanding preschool, but Blagojevich promises $60 million annually for at least three years and Topinka promises $30 million for each of the next six years.
Blagojevich's "B-" rewards his plan for mentoring teachers and administrators, but makes no comment on his plan to make teachers accountable through "performance-based pay," partially measured by students' test scores. His report card says his plan lacks detail in how he would measure the quality and impact of his programs.
Topinka's "B+" gives her a slight edge for offering a $5,000 stipend to teachers who agree to teach in struggling schools, as well as $250 million in grants to under-performing schools that show how they would help students meet state learning standards.
Clowes, the Heartland researcher, has a different idea about how to make teachers and principals accountable to students' needs. He would allow parents to use tax-funded vouchers or tax credits to send their children to any public school they wanted. Then, he says, principals would become accountable to the parents. "If you want to have influence over the way money is spent, then you have to raise it locally and you have to spend it locally," he adds. "Once it gets to a higher level, then there are all kinds of special interests that will try to swing it to their favorite funding destination."
That, he says, contributes to the "maldistribution of teachers" and the unmet needs of students, as reported by the Education Trust, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit research and advocacy group.
Out of all the reforms tried, he says, "none of them has proven very effective in changing the thing that everyone wants to change, and that is improving student achievement."
Regardless of which approach is on the table, the universal question for parents, teachers, unions, principals, business leaders, mayors and lawmakers is, "What are we currently getting for our money?"
This election season could be the best time to discuss any education reform plans on, or even near, the table.
Voters will have three choices for each statewide office. For more information on these races, watch Illinois Issues' Web site at http://illinoisissues.uis.edu.
Pat Quinn, Democrat of Chicago, incumbent running with Gov. Rod Blagojevich. He served as Illinois treasurer from 1991 to 1995.
Joe Birkett, Republican of Wheaton, running mate of Judy Baar Topinka. He served three terms as the DuPage County state's attorney. He lost a 2002 bid for Illinois attorney general.
Julie Samuels, Green Party of Oak Park, running with Rich Whitney. She is a community organizer for Openlands, a nonprofit that promotes land preservation. She twice ran for a seat in House District 8.
Lisa Madigan, incumbent Democrat of Chicago. She was an attorney for the Chicago law firm Sachnoff & Weaver and an Illinois senator for the 17th District from 1999 to 2003.
Stewart Umholtz, Republican of Pekin. He has been the Tazewell County state's attorney since 1995.
David Black, Green Party of Belvidere. He's an attorney, Winnebago Boone Green Party treasurer and Illinois Green Party secretary.
Secretary of state
Jesse White, Democrat of Chicago, incumbent since 1999. He was the Cook County recorder of deeds from 1993 to 1999 and a state representative from 1975 to 1977 and 1979 to 1993.
Dan Rutherford, Republican of Chenoa. He served in the Illinois Senate from 2003 to 2007 and in the House from 1993 to 2003.
Karen "Young" Peterson, Green Party of Chicago. She works in commercial radio and has taught at Columbia College Chicago.
Dan Hynes, Democrat of Chicago, incumbent since 1999. Prior to taking office, he was a health care attorney for a Chicago law firm now called Katten Muchin Rosenman.
Carole Pankau, Republican of Itasca. She served in the Illinois Senate from 2005 to present, in the House from 1993 to 2005 and on the DuPage County Board from 1984 to 1992.
Alicia Snyder, Green Party of Centralia. She is a special education teacher.
Christine Radogno, Republican of Lemont. She served in the Illinois Senate from 1997 to present and on the LaGrange Village Board from 1989 to 1996.
Alexander "Alexi" Giannoulias, Democrat of Chicago. He is vice president and a senior loan officer in his family's Broadway Bank.
Dan Rodriguez Schlorff, Green Party of Chicago. He manages grants and procurement for his family's development firm, Adair Associates.
Bethany Carson can be reached at email@example.com.
Illinois Issues, October 2006