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Ill. Voters To Decide if State Should Bear School Costs

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The Illinois General Assembly has moved to let voters decide on a constitutional amendment that would force the state to pay most of the costs of public education.

The proposed amendment, narrowly passed by the legislature late last month, would require the state to pay at least half the costs of an "adequate'' education for each student in public elementary and secondary schools.

The amendment also would establish the funding of public education as the state's foremost responsibility, thereby discouraging it from spending money on other areas while maintaining inadequate schools.

Senator Arthur L. Berman, one of the measure's chief sponsors, said last week that the amendment is needed because the state currently only pays "lip service'' to addressing the needs of public education.

The state, Mr. Berman said, has been moving in "the wrong direction'' on school funding, with its share of the costs of public elementary and secondary education dropping from about 48 percent in 1976 to 35 percent this year.

But getting the amendment approved by the public "is going to be a tough battle,'' Senator Berman conceded last week.

House Speaker Michael J. Madigan, who sponsored the amendment and shepherded it through his chamber, barely got the three-fifths majority he needed to see it passed.

The House finally approved the amendment by a 74-to-44 vote, but only after hours of angry debate that erupted, finally, in a scuffle among representatives on the floor.

Because the Governor cannot veto the amendment, and the Senate previously had approved it by a 38-to-14 vote, House passage ensured that the initiative would be on the ballot in November.

But passage of the amendment still requires the backing of either a majority of those voting in the election or three-fifths of those voting specifically on the amendment.

The initiative has the backing of the Illinois State Board of Education and State Superintendent of Education Robert Leininger, who in a letter sent to House members last month said the amendment would provide property-tax relief and help ensure the equitable funding of schools.

"Nearly every official in state government has proclaimed that education is his or her number-one priority,'' the letter said. "The time has come to put that belief to the test.''

The amendment also has the backing of the Illinois Education Association, which lobbied last month to get the measure passed by the legislature in time to be on the November ballot.

Lee N. Betterman, the president of the I.E.A., noted, however, that the amendment moved through the General Assembly quickly--too quickly, perhaps, to enable the forces opposed to it to mobilize.

Higher Taxes Forecast

Last week, several groups that oppose the amendment were plotting their strategy for November.

Gregory W. Baise, the president of the Illinois Manufacturers Association, said last week that he had met with officials of the Illinois Retailers Association and the Illinois Business Roundtable to plan a campaign to defeat the initiative.

If the amendment is passed, Mr. Baise said, state taxes will increase between $1.45 billion and $3 billion a year, pushing businesses and jobs out of Illinois.

"Studies have repeatedly shown throwing more money into public education will not improve the quality of education our young people receive,'' an I.M.A. statement contends.

Passage of the amendment will, however, "ensure that Illinois has one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation,'' the I.M.A. charges.

Governor Jim Edgar had declined as of late last week to take a formal position on the measure.

But the Governor did hold a news conference late last month to note that passage of the amendment could necessitate a 50 percent increase in the state's income tax.

Passage of the amendment, the Governor said, would absolve him of his campaign pledge not to raise taxes and leave the legislators who put the measure on the ballot with "an obligation to support that tax increase.''

Senator Berman has argued that the amendment "is not an automatic tax increase by any means,'' and likely would provide significant property-tax relief for businesses.

If the amendment is passed, state officials will be left with the task of defining an "adequate'' education to establish minimum levels of state funding.

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