In a January 15 State of the State address that stunned many, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) dropped what one senator called an “atomic bomb” on the state department of education.
“To sum it up, the Illinois State Board of Education has failed in its mission. It’s a burden to the taxpayers. It’s a drain on local schools. It’s an albatross to our principals and teachers. It’s not helping our children,” Blagojevich said. “And it hasn’t lived up to what the delegates at our Constitutional Convention envisioned, something far different, something far better, than what we ended up with.”
The governor compared the board to an “old, Soviet-style bureaucracy” that is bloated, squanders taxpayer money, and has run amok. “It’s clunky and inefficient, it issues mandates, it spends money, it dictates policy, and it isn’t accountable to anyone for anything,” the governor said.
“This is a bureaucratic nightmare of biblical proportions,” Blagojevich quipped, noting that at more than 2,800 pages, the Board of Education’s administrative rules take up more space than the King James Bible, the Torah, and the Koran combined.
The Board of Education makes policy for elementary and secondary government schools across the state. It is required by law to present the governor and General Assembly with an annual budget proposal by mid-January. On January 8, the board recommended the fiscal year 2005 elementary and secondary education budget include a $609 million General Funds increase over the fiscal year 2004 appropriation.
The FY2004 state budget for elementary and secondary education is $8.5 billion, up $309 million from FY2003. Elementary and secondary education represents nearly 16.5 percent of the state’s total FY2004 appropriations of $52.4 billion.
State Takeover Proposed
Blagojevich has proposed shifting most of the Board of Education’s administrative duties to a new Department of Education under his control. By doing so, he predicted, he could “trim up to $1 billion in waste over four years–money that could be re-channeled to classrooms.”
“Even the Berlin Wall eventually came down,” Blagojevich said. “Allowing the State Board of Education to be a barrier to progress is like throwing money down the drain.”
“I’ve been around several governors and the General Assembly for a long time, and I’ve never seen a governor lay an atomic bomb on one issue like Gov. Blagojevich did in his speech with respect to the State Board of Education,” said Sen. Kirk Dillard (R-Hinsdale), who said he backed the governor’s concept but “wanted more details.”
According to the Chicago Sun-Times, Blagojevich pledged to make the new agency work with “80 percent of the budget now in place for the state Board of Education and with 60 percent of the board’s current work force,” which now totals about 490 people. A shell of the existing state board would remain under the governor’s plan as an education “think tank.”
Dr. Michael J. Bakalis, a former Illinois State Superintendent of Schools currently on the faculty at Northwestern University’s Kellogg Graduate School of Management, supports the Blagojevich proposal. “Back in 1970, I thought it was in the best interest of the state to have an independent board of education. But over the years, that independence has allowed the board to grow into a sizable bureaucracy that answers to no one,” Bakalis said. “With something as critical as education–an issue that impacts our state’s social and economic success–it’s imperative that we establish a clear line of responsibility.”
Spokespersons for the state’s largest teacher union, the Illinois Education Association (IEA), expressed support for Blagojevich’s plan. “For too long the State Board of Education has been accountable to no one, leading to periods of chaos and confusion, so we applaud the governor’s leadership,” said IEA President Anne Davis.
The Sun-Times reported Blagojevich’s proposal also has the support of the American Federation of Teachers, former state schools superintendent Michael Bakalis, and 15 legislators from both parties.
Support Not Universal
The legislative leadership, however, did not immediately jump on the Blagojevich bandwagon. Senate President Emil Jones (D-Chicago) said he wanted to “take a closer look at Blagojevich’s proposal.” He promised to work with the governor but predicted a difficult legislative fight ahead.
“All this rhetoric is great. The public will gobble it up,” said Sen. Miguel del Valle (D-Chicago), chairman of the Senate Education Committee. “But what are we really accomplishing here?”
“It’s pretty hard to argue with a lot of what he said, but obviously the devil is in the details,” said House Republican Leader Tom Cross (R-Oswego). “Last year [former governor] George Ryan and the General Assembly were the whipping posts. This year the state board is going to be the whipping post.”
Peter LaBarbera, executive director of the Illinois Family Institute, expressed concern about the impact Blagojevich’s proposal would have on school accountability.
“The best hope for education improvement in Illinois lies in a competitive education marketplace–fueled by true school choice and the education freedom it brings,” LaBarbera said. “The clearest pathway to making that school choice a reality in Illinois is the mounting pressure on the Illinois State Board of Education and the schools under its leadership to meet steadily rising achievement standards set by federal law. Any reorganization that gets in the way of that process is bad for Illinois families and a hindrance to the ultimate and urgent goal of improving education across the state.”
“I’m ambivalent,” said Joseph Bast, president of The Heartland Institute and publisher of Budget & Tax News. “The good news is that notably absent from Gov. Blagojevich’s 86-minute speech were discussions of reducing the gap between the state’s richest and poorest schools, increasing state government’s contribution to education costs, or consolidating some of the 892 school districts in Illinois. Had he sided with the tax hikers, we would have been in real trouble. This is all just rearranging chairs on the deck of the Titanic. Nobody in Springfield (or Chicago) is interested in school choice and vouchers. Until that changes, nothing will improve.”
George Clowes, managing editor of School Reform News, pointed out, “Gov. Blagojevich wants to take over responsibility for Illinois public schools because, he says, Mayor Daley took responsibility for Chicago’s public schools in 1995 and it worked.
“But it didn’t work,” Clowes continued. “The only success Daley can claim is that the Chicago public schools are no longer the worst in the country, as William Bennett dubbed them when he was U.S. Education Secretary. They are now fifth or sixth from the bottom when compared to other major urban school districts in the recent National Assessment of Educational Progress. Is Blagojevich cheering the fact that the public schools in Chicago are a little better than those in Cleveland and Washington, DC–but worse than those in New York City and still well below the national average? Parents would offer a Bronx cheer to that claim.”
Clowes ended, “I think the Governor’s indictment is faulty. The thousands of rules and regulations the State Board is charged with implementing were created by the legislature, not by the State Board. Getting rid of the State Board still doesn’t put power in the hands of parents and so it’s largely a smoke and mirrors effort–lots of ‘sound and fury, signifying nothing.’ It doesn’t change the fundamental power structure. It certainly won’t help the children of Illinois.”
The General Assembly is scheduled to adjourn at the end of May. By law, a FY2005 budget must be in place before it can do so.
John Skorburg is managing editor of Budget & Tax News. His email address is [email protected].