Thursday, August 7, 2008

A Failed Governor, Failing Illinois

We're Number 49! We're 49th!

Ok, so Illinois isn't dead last in state funding, as a percentage of the state's share of education funding, but that isn't anything to be proud of. Under Rod Blagojevich, Illinois has continued the death spiral to the bottom, making education (apparently) the lowest priority in his lacklaster administration.

So what does the governor do? Why, call a special session of course, so that he can leverage the state's dismal education record in his obsessive and increasingly bitter feud with the speaker.

Phil Kadner laid out the crisis:

State support for public schools in Illinois dropped to an all-time low at 29.6 percent of the overall education budget in 2006, placing a greater burden on property owners to finance the schools.

That's the first time the state has dropped below 30 percent in decades of recordkeeping.

The report on school funding by the National Center for Education Statistics (operated by the U.S. Department of Education) was released in April and was featured on the front page of a recent newsletter by the Illinois Association of School Boards.

According to the report, Illinois' share of the education burden ranks it 49th out of the 50 states (Nevada at 25.9 percent is dead last).

Local school districts in Illinois are forced to raise 62 percent of their revenue from the property tax on homeowners and businesses. They get 8.4 percent of their money from the federal government.

Because public schools in Illinois are so dependent on a local tax, the disparity between the funds available to property-poor school districts and wealthy ones continues to increase - causing some of the poorest suburbs to pay among the highest property tax rates for substandard schools.

The problem certainly predates Governor Blagojevich. Like other states that have brought in a lottery with the misplaced promise that lottery dollars would enhance education in the state, Illinois has steadily reduced state funding for public education.

For example, in Illinois, where the state spends $6.5 billion a year on education, only $619 million, or one-tenth, comes from the lottery. In California, with an $84 billion education budget, the lottery funds only about $1.2 billion, or one-seventieth. In Florida, lottery proceeds cover one-twentieth of state education spending. In New Jersey, it's one-thirtieth; in Texas, one-fiftieth.

"We thought that it would be a windfall" says Michael Johnson, executive director of the Illinois Association of School Boards. He says the idea that lottery money adds to education funding is a myth.
"The general public -- they were fooled by this,” he says. “The belief that that's additional money, above and beyond what we would normally get, that's the part that's not true."

"Well, it's certainly one of the worst votes I ever made," says former Illinois State Senator Dawn Netsch.

Netsch, whose vote helped pass the Illinois lottery in the 1970s, says lottery money simply replaces tax dollars legislators might spend on education, but instead spend on other projects.

"The lottery becomes part of the big pot of money that funds the basic functions of state government," Netsch said.

The lottery has made state financial support for education a shell game, and we are the suckers. Voters believe there is a stable source of revenue for education (aside from the General Revenue Fund), when there's not. Reforming education in Illinois starts with the provision of stable and predictable revenue streams for state government that provides the level of services we need and demand. This is not to say that state government spending can't be cut. The costs of patronage and corruption in the state not only bloat government but add to the problem exponentially. The fact is that this governor has not cut out the corruption and patronage that would free up revenues for real problems, but seems to have added to them.

Resolving the problems that Illinois has -- and they are legion -- requires bold leadership. No one in their right mind ever thought Speaker Madigan would provide bold leadership -- a remarkably cautious and conservative politician, bold leadership isn't in his political DNA. But Rod Blagojevich has constantly talked the game, promising bold leadership repeatedly to address this problem or that one.

And he has failed to deliver every single time.

Rod's issue isn't his political DNA, but his immaturity. Rich Miller, of the Capitol Fax, has suggested that Rod's eternal feud with Madigan stems from the latter's lack of respect for the governor. Even if this is the case, it is no excuse. The personal feelings of the two powerful Democrats shouldn't have any effect on their ability to do their jobs. The fact that it does, in the case of the governor, demonstrates a lack of maturity that effects us all.

The failure of the governor, and Illinois' steady decline to the bottom, is certainly relative. But the fact is that the governor's obstinance and his inability to lead only perpetuates that decline.

The starkest realization when I moved here from Florida was how far behind Illinois is in the rudimentary infrastructure for the "knowledge economy" of the 21st century. Visiting the bookstores of UofC and UIC left me underwhelmed. In those bookstores combined (and including numerous others), I couldn't find the shelf space for the math books I had available at the local Barnes and Noble in Merritt Island. Shelf space for computer books, while certainly not the same as you'd find on the coasts, was dominated by simplistic texts on how to use inane Microsoft products. It took me a few years to realize that the reason that there is no market for real tech books here is that the education system in the state simply sucks. So if Illinois has seen better days, there is one source we can lay the blame. As Brian Kahin puts it:

K–12 education creates [the] human capital that will serve the knowledge needs of the future. (Prospects for Knowledge Policy)

While Blagojevich is locked in a kind of personal battle to the political death with Mike Madigan, Illinois burns. There are real problems that need to be addressed in the state, but the governor seems incapable of addressing them in a manner that will win passage from the Illinois legislature. A real leader would find a way to work with the other PTBs; a *bold* leader would not only find a way out of this impass, but point the way out of the others, as well.

Calling a special session doesn't cut it. It's just more theatrics. It will take more than 2 days to resolve the issues that need to be addressed in education reform -- and it's doubtful that the governor will even spend those two days negotiating with the legislature even then.

There's not a lot we can do about Speaker Madigan. He seems to be Speaker/Party Leader for life -- a permanent part of Illinois' political environment. Like other obstacles, we just have to work around him. But that is exactly what Governor Blagojevich refuses to do. Instead, we are left with his quixotic attacks and his lack of political leadership. We will have to endure two more years of this political paralysis (unless, of course, he gets indicted). But progressives and reformers should not be lulled into Blagojevich's trap, in his attempt to frame the battle as him against the speaker. Yes, in a sense, there is that dimension to it. But the battle for education reform is much broader than that, and Blagojevich is neither a leader nor a foot soldier in that battle. Nor is this special session (or those that follow) a gateway towards resolving the education funding issue.

Education reformers have to look beyond the governor (and recognize that nothing may happen towards their goals in the next few years). The governor is unlikely to consider the tax swap or the principles behind SB2288 in this special session, or anytime. The Governor's failure stains Illinois and allows the state to drift further behind...

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