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Published in Print: March 13, 2002, as Former Chicago Schools Chief In Tight Race for Governor

Former Chicago Schools Chief In Tight Race for Governor

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When Paul G. Vallas took the helm of the Chicago public schools in 1995, he became a central player in one of the country's most closely watched experiments in overhauling a large, urban school system. Now, the man widely credited with turning around the nation's third- largest school district has taken on yet another closely watched challenge: the race to be chief executive of Illinois.

The Illinois gubernatorial race, expected to be among the tightest of the nation's 36 governorship contests this year, already has proved daunting for this enthusiastic and seemingly tireless campaigner who stepped down as schools chief last year.

In the Democratic primary next week, Mr. Vallas is facing U.S. Rep. Rod R. Blagojevich and Roland Burris, a former state attorney general and state comptroller who has run for governor twice before. As they seek to become the first Democratic governor in more than 20 years, all three hopefuls are touting education as a priority. But so far, none has been able to break away from the pack.

The lead has shifted several times, but recent polls have found Mr. Vallas behind.

His most formidable opponent is Mr. Blagojevich, who has far-reaching family connections, including his father, who is a Chicago alderman. The third- term congressman has used a large bankroll to buy television and radio ads, outspending Mr. Vallas 2-to-1, according to some estimates. Mr. Blagojevich, who represents Illinois' 5th District on the North Side of Chicago, also has the endorsement of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, the state's main teachers' union. Mr. Vallas had high visibility as the Chicago district's chief executive officer—appointed by Democratic Mayor Richard M. Daley under a state law overhauling the system's governance—but it's not clear if that role will help him win the governorship.

In a Feb. 17 poll of 600 likely Democratic voters by the Chicago Tribune and WGN-TV, 31 percent picked Mr. Blagojevich, who is a former state senator. Mr. Burris was favored by 27 percent, while 20 percent backed Mr. Vallas, and 22 percent were undecided. The poll had a margin of error of 4 percentage points.

Meanwhile, Illinois Attorney General Jim Ryan—who is not related to embattled Gov. George H. Ryan, who decided not to seek re-election—is leading two other Republicans vying for the GOP nomination. Some pundits believe the GOP's chances of keeping the governor's mansion have been weakened because of lackluster candidates and a host of controversies that have dogged Gov. Ryan.

Since the mid-February poll, however, Mr. Vallas has begun running television ads and has won the endorsement of several major newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune.

He's trying to convince voters that his skills not only as the head of Chicago's schools, but also as the city's deficit-closing former budget manager, make him the best-qualified candidate to lead the state in tough economic times. In addition, Mr. Vallas, who began his career as an elementary school teacher more than two decades ago, has served as the state legislature's top revenue analyst.

"I not only understand education issues and finance, I've also mastered municipal issues," Mr. Vallas said in an interview. "I was brought in to manage budgets in a severe financial crisis; I know how to balance budgets and reprioritize spending. I know how to handle very, very tough budget situations."

Wary Educators

Chicago educators and school advocacy groups often wrangled with Mr. Vallas during his six-year tenure as district CEO, so it's not surprising they have shown little, if any, enthusiasm for his campaign. Some worry that what they perceived as a heavy- handed approach to overhauling the Chicago schools would not work well at the state level.

The Illinois Federation of Teachers gave Mr. Blagojevich its nod because the union is mainly concerned about winning back bargaining rights for its Chicago members, said Gail Purkey, a spokeswoman for the American Federation of Teachers affiliate. Those rights were stripped in 1995 when the state gave Chicago officials more control over the school system. ("Governor Signs Bill Putting Mayor in Control of Chicago Schools," June 7, 1995.)

"That's hugely important to our members," Ms. Purkey said. "Paul Vallas has never said he will work with us to restore these rights that every other teacher in Illinois enjoys.

"As a state legislator and member of Congress, Rod Blagojevich has a very strong record on education and labor issues," she added.

All three Democrats have similar education platforms: increase the state's share of spending, create new early-childhood programs, revamp the state board of education to be more accountable to the governor and local districts, and instill new accountability in schools.

But it's the past that has sparked squabbles. For one, Rep. Blagojevich argued that Mr. Vallas had forced the Chicago schools to spend too much time testing students and had required teachers to teach to the district's standardized tests.

Testing was a key component of the accountability system installed by Mr. Vallas, which also eliminated social promotion and sent low- performing students to summer school.

Mr. Blagojevich also has asserted that Mr. Vallas' plans eliminated service jobs and pension funds within the district. Mr. Vallas denied the charges and said Mr. Blagojevich was trying to distort his record because he could not claim experience in education.

"That's what politicians do when they get desperate," Mr. Vallas said. "During his five-year stint in Congress, the only legislation Rod passed as chief sponsor was renaming a postal facility in Chicago, and that certainly does not merit a promotion to governor."

Meanwhile, the Illinois Association of School Boards, which does not endorse candidates in primaries, is skeptical of all three Democrats' education plans.

"Everybody wants more funding and more equitable funding," said Ben Schwarm, the association's director of governmental relations. "Nobody has really put out any specifics on how to get there and where the funding will come from."

'Can't Come Close'

Platforms notwithstanding, the primary race so far seems to hinge on name recognition, said James D. Nowlan, a visiting senior fellow at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign's Institute for Government and Politics.

Mr. Vallas and Mr. Blagojevich "are trying to develop positive name recognition across the state before tackling the issues," Mr. Nowlan said. "I don't know if the distinction [of being Chicago schools chief] will benefit Vallas at all because voters don't seem to be tuned into the election all that much."

But Mr. Vallas has picked up some endorsements that could change the tide.

In its March 2 endorsement, the state's leading newspaper, the Chicago Tribune wrote: "Vallas is the best Democrat to wrestle effectively with two of the state's most immediate concerns: its economic health and the education of its children. He has the track record to prove it. His opponents can't even come close."

In southern Illinois, Glenn Poshard, a former state senator and Democratic gubernatorial nominee in 1998, said in his endorsement that Mr. Vallas was a crucial asset when he worked with the legislature on budget issues in the 1980's.

"There were countless nights when Paul would be at his desk until 3 a.m., helping us figure out how to balance the state budget," Mr. Poshard, now a vice chancellor at Southern Illinois University, wrote.

Last week, experts predicted that the winner of the March 19 Democratic primary likely will be the candidate who manages to pull the most votes from the downstate area and has a respectable showing both in Chicago and its suburbs, Mr. Nowlan said.

"The race can be won by Vallas ... if Paul can amplify his credibility to the undecided voters," he said.

Mr. Vallas, meanwhile, does not believe he is behind as much as the polls have shown, and he believes his new television advertisements and endorsements will help: "I think the gap will close; then it will be a horse race."

Vol. 21, Issue 26, Page 8

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