Published Online: November 2, 1994

Focus on Education in Ill. Governor's Race Becomes Blurred

Cahokia, Ill.

Dawn Clark Netsch steps up to a microphone at the airport here and, for the umpteenth time, tells a row of television cameras that something needs to be done about the way Illinois pays for its schools.

Ms. Netsch, the Democratic candidate for governor, describes the decline in state support for schools in the strongest possible terms.

"We're below Mississippi," she says.

What should sound like alarming news in one of the nation's wealthiest states is instead lost in the middle of that night's evening news. In a campaign season when candidates crusade for bigger prisons, more executions, lower taxes, and a crackdown on welfare cheats, a focus on education can hardly compare.

Ms. Netsch has learned the hard way that promising to be the education governor is not as glamorous as it used to be.

Her campaign has focused largely on the need to raise the state share of school spending and concentrate on classroom improvements. That devotion has won her the endorsement of education groups and admiration from political observers who applaud her willingness to tackle tough issues.

That focus has also contributed to her current predicament--a dismal showing in statewide polls, an unimpressive campaign budget, and an immense uphill fight in the days before next week's election.

"She's got a tough row to hoe," said State Sen. Kenneth Hall, a 31-year veteran of Illinois politics who represents this district and worked with Ms. Netsch during her 18 years in the legislature. "She's a brilliant woman and a fighter. She practically wrote the state constitution. But this is going to be tough."

Statewide polls last week showed Gov. Jim Edgar leading comfortably, with the support of 60 percent of registered voters. About 25 percent said they would vote for Ms. Netsch, the 68-year-old state comptroller and former law professor, while 15 percent said they had not yet decided.

As Ms. Netsch was flying across the state promising in local press conferences to keep her sights set on education during the home stretch of the campaign, the Republican Governor was in nearby Belleville delivering a grant for a new bicycle trail and visiting Grafton, just north, to present a flood-relief check.

While she understands her longshot predicament, Ms. Netsch repeated that she cannot overlook the state's chief problem: slipping education funds.

The state share of school funding in Illinois stands at just under 33 percent and has fallen consistently during Mr. Edgar's term. The declining share of state money has been replaced by increased local property taxes. The centerpiece of Ms. Netsch's campaign is a plan to raise the state's income tax while lowering local property taxes and boosting the state's share of education spending by adding $1 billion in new funding.

"A lot of people understand that the state is not living up to its responsibility," Ms. Netsch said.

Single-Issue Campaign

As in a number of states, Illinois voters have told pollsters this fall that education remains their top concern--an area where they would be willing to pay higher taxes in order to see positive changes. Yet polling among voters shows that strong stands on crime and economic issues are more likely to translate into greater support for candidates.

Those trends are evident in the governor's race here, as is the importance of being able to afford a strong media presence.

Many observers point out that early television ads by Mr. Edgar and repeated appearances where he tagged Ms. Netsch's plan as a 42 percent increase in the state's income tax stuck with voters. Her limited campaign budget left her largely helpless in countering his attacks, and now some analysts say she has too much ground to make up before Election Day.

"Hers has been a single-issue, focused campaign and he was able to define her on that issue," said Barbara Brown, a political-science lecturer at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. "She is in step with what surveys say is a key concern, but they are not able to link that message to something voters would see as a solution to the problem."

Indeed, many voters have a hard time making the connection between a promise of greater school funding and improved classrooms. Many express skepticism that schools will spend new tax money wisely or that its presence will even be visible in local schools.

"My sense is that a lot of people do understand what a key role education plays, whether their kids are in school or not," Ms. Netsch said after her news conference here. "Where it begins to get stickier is when your opponent has the ability to spend millions of dollars to tell everyone that their taxes are going to go up. And the other problem is that people believe there is a lot of waste in the system, even when you talk about more accountability."

Emphasis on Taxes

For his part, Mr. Edgar has issued his own school-finance package, though he has spent little time on the subject and has gained more mileage out of attacking higher taxes than arguing for a more dependable school-finance system.

Much of his recent campaign efforts have involved talking about his first-term record and showing him on the job, working as Governor. In recent appearances, he has distanced himself from any promises of new money for schools and reiterated his earlier position that schools need to show improvement and results before they line up for more money.

To observers, the gestures are a sign that because Ms. Netsch's message has not caught on, school finance may be pushed to the back burner as an issue that does not hold particular importance with voters.

"Jim Edgar's style is not one of facing up to problems," said Ms. Brown of Southern Illinois University. "As long as he can keep the state coasting along, that's what he does. If he wins, there is no reason to believe he will pursue education issues any way other than the way he has."

Ms. Netsch is not so kind in her assessment of Mr. Edgar's tenure. "The difference is between someone with a record of not only nonaccomplishment but actually letting things go backward for four years... and someone with a record that says I will fight and will not give up."

A 'Straight Shooter'

In an effort to enliven her campaign, Ms. Netsch in recent days made light of her average looks in contrast to the telegenic Governor, who is 20 years her junior, passing out buttons proclaiming her "Not just another pretty face." During her fly-around last week, she distributed magnifying glasses to reporters, suggesting they would be necessary to see Mr. Edgar's accomplishments. In a gimmick she first used during the primary last spring, she continues to run television ads in which she makes trick shots at a pool table, promising that she is a straight shooter.

Occasionally, the frustrations of repeatedly trying to get attention show through.

At this news conference, Ms. Netsch was told that Governor Edgar had criticized her school-funding plan as something that the legislature would never approve.

"How would he know?" she shouted, grabbing the attention of the cameramen. "He's never tried to do a thing. How would he know? You've got to try in order to do something."

After the session with reporters was over, a local supporter sympathized with Ms. Netsch over the difficulty of winning enthusiasm for school reforms on the campaign trail.

"We talk about it so much and bang away on it," Ms. Netsch said, "but the coverage is not always there."

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