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Ill. Ballot Question Sparks Debate Over Commitment to Schools

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CHICAGO--A proposed constitutional amendment mandating a new school-funding system in Illinois has sparked a tense debate between business leaders and state lawmakers over each side's commitment to improving education.

Illinois voters next month will face a question of the sort that historically has been left to judges and constitutional scribes: whether the state should bear the chief burden in bankrolling public schools.

The results of the vote, observers suggest, will say a great deal about whether the public sees school funding as the obligation of the state or of individual communities.

But the increasingly vocal campaign being waged here and throughout the state rarely touches on such philosophical quandaries.

Instead, debate over the initiative has evoked criticism of the lawmakers who are its chief sponsors, with charges that they are unable to govern without a crisis. Backers of the plan, in turn, are blasting the state's business leaders as fair-weather friends for their mounting of a well-funded campaign opposing the Nov. 3 ballot question.

The origins of the debate lie in the Illinois constitution, which declares adequate school funding to be a "goal'' rather than a "right'' or a responsibility of the state. That has left the primary burden of school finance on local property taxes, leading to some of the nation's widest disparities in funding--from $2,253 to $14,315 per pupil in 1989-90.

Poor school districts have mounted a legal challenge to the current funding method, but so far their efforts have been stymied by the lack of a constitutional mandate for an equitable system.

A state task force also has been deliberating on possible corrective action through legislation. But there, too, top lawmakers feared that the goal of a stronger state role would be pushed to the back burner again in the absence of a stronger constitutional mandate.

As voters begin for the first time to wrestle with issues of equality and what their schools stand to gain or lose under the amendment, campaign organizers remain entangled in a sparring match focusing on how to lead reform.

'Education's Best Hope'

Buckled into the front passenger seat of a minivan headed from Chicago to a suburban meeting of school administrators, State Superintendent of Education Robert Leininger tests the restraining power of the vehicle's shoulder harness as he leans into the back seat co nyt to discuss the campaign.

The energetic schools chief, who is the top state official backing the amendment, is booked solid through Election Day. Earlier in the morning, he had spoken to the editorial board of a local business journal. After the superintendents' meeting, he will go back downtown for an afternoon hearing with the state school-finance task force.

Mr. Leininger seems intensely excited both because he is a strong supporter of the ballot question and because he is now pitted against the same business officials that he has courted during his tenure.

"I can't get away from it,'' he explains, recounting a football game he attended last month at which a sign drawn by a circling airplane encouraged fans to vote against the amendment.

The superintendent is fighting the battle on many fronts. He argues that the amendment would prevent lawmakers from ducking school-funding issues, accuses the business community of backpedaling, and challenges the fairness of the current system.

Summing up Mr. Leininger's views, Lee Milner, a top aide, said, "This really determines that when you have a tax increase, will we put kids first or are we going to serve them the leftovers again.''

"He thinks this is the light at the end of the tunnel and education's best hope,'' Mr. Milner observed. "It is the key to implementing a lot of other things.''

$1.5 Billion Tax Hike

Mr. Leininger and others assume that if the amendment is approved, the state will implement the proposals of the task force on school-finance reform. That plan, which sets a minimum adequate funding level of about $4,000 per student, would require an estimated increase in state taxes of about $1.5 billion.

In his remarks to the superintendents, however, Mr. Leininger hammered away at the point that funding shortfalls and cost increases will force a tax increase next year regardless of the results on Election Day. Passing the amendment, he argued, is the only way to insure that state officials will spend the proceeds on education rather than on other programs.

"Let's not have another tax sold on the back of education that goes to everybody else,'' he said.

Beyond playing on the mistrust of state government, Mr. Leininger offers other appeals. To communities that would benefit from the task force's spending target, he offers congratulations, while to communities that would see higher taxes but no more state aid, he appeals to a sense of fairness.

He is not sure if he is getting anywhere. "It was tougher than I thought,'' he said earlier in the day as he emerged from the editorial-board meeting, "but we made our points.''

After talking with the superintendents, who come from all levels of local wealth, he noted, "I don't know if I changed any minds, but I got a few of them thinking.''

"This is not an issue totally supported by the education community and not totally unsupported by the business community,'' the superintendent said. "It all depends on how far ahead people are looking.''

But the prominent opposition of the state's top business groups still troubles the superintendent. The state Chamber of Commerce, Retail Merchants Association, Business Roundtable, and Manufacturers Association and the National Federation of Independent Businesses have banded together to launch a high-profile campaign against it.

Most of the opposition leaders had been prominent supporters of education reforms. Mr. Leininger said that as he fights for endorsements from local chambers of commerce and business officials, he is amazed at the turnaround by state groups.

"I've spent a hell of a lot of time with the private sector, and they've asked for reforms and accountability legislation and helped work behind the scenes, and it was always with the understanding that when the time comes for more money, they would be there,'' Mr. Leininger said. "I would like the business community to tell us one thing they have asked us to do that we haven't done.''

"As I travel around, I keep looking behind me, but they're not there,'' he said. "Here's their chance for leadership and they are blowing it.''

'We Don't Have the Guts'

Opponents of the amendment say they have not backed away from education. Many agree that the system needs to be equalized and will require more state funding.

But critics insist that the constitutional amendment is a clumsy way for state lawmakers to exercise power that they already have, adding that the language of the provision will invite litigation.

"The task and responsibility for school finance is still before the General Assembly whether there is a constitutional amendment or not,'' said Bob Beckwith, a member of the state task force and the education-policy director for the Illinois State Chamber of Commerce. "Passing this amendment is an inadvisable way for state government to run, because it takes away the right of the citizens to determine the extent of their own taxation and where those dollars should go.''

Amendment backers argue, however, that its mandate may be the only way to force legislators to boost education funding.

Supporters note that since a 1973 state supreme court decision that interpreted adequate school funding as a goal, rather than a duty, of the state, the state's share of public school budgets has dropped from 48 percent to 33 percent.

"We have absolutely failed,'' said Sen. John W. Maitland Jr., a Republican who has worked closely with the Democratic architect of the amendment, Sen. Arthur L. Berman, "and it is not going to change until we have something that puts teeth in what the constitution said.''

"We are going to have to generate more revenue even if this fails,'' he added. "The difference is that we will fund everything else, and it will be easy to say that whatever is left over, education will get. They will get some new money, but after a couple of years, education will be right back relying on the property owner again.''

Edgar on the Sidelines

While the business lobby has lined up against the education lobby in the campaign, observers note many defectors from both sides.

Conspicuously absent from the contest has been Gov. Jim Edgar. Mr. Edgar, a Republican, was elected in 1990 with the support of some education groups because he promised to preserve an existing income-tax surcharge for education. He also vowed during the campaign, however, not to raise any new taxes during his first term.

Advocates concede that the Governor's tax pledge has precluded him from backing the amendment. But they say they have been pleased that he has not spoken out against it.

In an year with a Presidential election and a much-publicized U.S. Senate race, many voters have yet to focus on the constitutional amendment. An August poll showed 70 percent of likely voters were unfamiliar with the issue.

Through early October, radio advertisements and school meetings have focused on the issue. The election's final days are expected to pit opponents' high-profile media campaign against the grassroots organizing of supporters.

Recent polls show general support, but strategists are reluctant to forecast a win. To be enacted, the amendment must receive 60 percent support from those voting specifically on the issue, or a majority of all voters who go to the polls.

While they are not sure how voters in the southern part of the state will react, analysts expect strong support for the measure in Chicago and resistance from more affluent suburban communities.

'This Is How It Works'

Taking a break from fending off the entreaties of a swarm of 4-year-olds in suburban Homewood, Ill., Claudia Liang describes both sides of the state's school inequalities.

Middle-class Homewood, where Ms. Liang is minding preschoolers whose mothers have gathered at the local Baptist church for a biweekly meeting, provides a solid education for its children, she said.

But, as a literacy volunteer in a poorer suburb, Ms. Liang also sees different circumstances.

"It's an issue that's been bothering me, because there are so many people that don't want to worry about the mainstream of children,'' she said. "They try to protect their own, but eventually the mainstream is going to affect them.''

Ms. Liang said that while she had heard talk of a constitutional amendment, she was unaware that it dealt with school-finance disparities. After a brief summary, she said she would vote for it, but predicted that it would not pass.

Supporters of the amendment acknowledge that voters are reluctant to support a plan that does not guarantee direct benefits. That sentiment is evident down in the church basement, where the mothers are gathered. These parents express not only skepticism at handing more money to the state, but also a disinterest in other school districts.

"The amount of money in the education system is not indicative of its quality, and the worst thing we can do is hand them more money,'' said Maureen Barnes, the mother of three.

Money sent to poor schools would be mismanaged, Ms. Barnes said.

"That's the danger of this kind of thing,'' she added. "I'm sorry everyone isn't a millionaire, but this is how it works.''

Margaret Kalisz, whose two school-age children attend private schools, said the amendment comes at a time when many people are giving up on public schools. "A lot of parents are already paying for education they are not using,'' she said. "They're not going to give more money to it.''

Jill Kaltenthaler, who leads the class, said she has tried to learn about the amendment. She would be willing to help poor districts, she said, but not to back equalization.

"I could support it if they were to say $5 from every taxpayer would go to help the poor schools, like you can check off a dollar on your utility bill for those who can't pay,'' she explained. "But if you say the state has a preponderant responsibility and want to make it even, I would not be for that.''

The task force's plan would raise per-pupil funding in the Homewood Elementary district by an estimated $300.

Behind the Eight Ball?

Persuading voters to see the core of the school-funding issue is growing more difficult, said G. Alan Hickrod, the director of the Center for the Study of Educational Finance at Illinois State University.

"This has always been there, it's just more blatant now,'' Mr. Hickrod said. "I try to shame people into agreeing with it--they are still citizens of Illinois. I don't remember any strong leadership for reforms from the northern part of the state. They've always had theirs.''

Much is riding on the result next month, Mr. Hickrod said, both in Illinois and in the national school-finance arena.

"If they lose, they will be behind the eight ball and everyone will feel it. The General Assembly will be able to say with a great deal of truth that the people don't care,'' he argued. "If it passes, then a lot of states will be advised to take a close look and say that if they can do it, we can too. Right now, you can get six-to-five odds either way.''

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