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Published in Print: January 28, 2004, as State of the States

State of the States

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Illinois | Georgia | Maine |
Massachusetts | Nebraska | North Dakota | Virginia

Blagojevich Sends Shockwaves Through Ed. Agency

After absorbing the bombshell of hearing their governor liken the state's education agency to a "Soviet-style bureaucracy" and propose gutting it in favor of a new department, Illinois officials said they were still uncertain about how quickly and easily his plan could be implemented.

State of the States Gov. Rod Blagojevich stunned many state legislators by using his Jan. 15 State of the State Address to blast the Illinois board of education, the agency that oversees school policy, accusing it of failing to promote academic improvements in the state's schools.

The Democratic governor, elected in 2002, told the lawmakers that he would ask them during the 2004 legislative session to strip the agency of the vast majority of its duties and transfer them to a newly created Illinois Department of Education, a Cabinet-level entity answerable to him and the legislature.

"We have a system that on the one hand is completely unaccountable, and on the other hand is more than willing to ask the taxpayers to bail them out," Gov. Blagojevich told the legislature. The board, he contended, "won't take responsibility for results, but they'll gladly ask the people for more and more of their hard-earned money."

Several state officials were taken aback by the tone of those remarks, delivered to an audience that included state schools Superintendent Robert E. Schiller, who was hired in 2002. The governor called the board "an albatross to our principals and teachers" and compared overhauling it to tearing down the Berlin Wall.

"I've never heard anything like it," said Sen. Miguel del Valle, a Chicago Democrat who chairs his chamber's education committee. "We had no idea it was coming. We were sitting there getting this for the first time."

Making the Case

The governor asserted that only 46 cents out of every dollar spent on education in Illinois was being directed to classroom instruction, a share that he blamed largely on overspending and waste by the board. He said his plan would redirect state funding, saving $1 billion over four years, and channel that money back into classrooms.

A new department of education, he said, would cut costs by pooling basic accounting and auditing functions, rather than having districts perform them individually; by centralizing purchasing of services; and by streamlining school construction, among other steps. Mr. Blagojevich also pledged to meet with district officials to explore ways to reduce the time and resources they devote to state regulatory requirements.

Sen. Valle and others, however, questioned the accuracy of several of the governor's assertions, particularly on classroom spending. The senator said he would expect legislative hearings on the proposal after the legislature convenes Feb. 3. He also questioned the feasibility of such sweeping changes as Illinois districts cope with the mandates of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

The Illinois State Board of Education was created through a constitutional convention in 1970 as an independent body that state officials intended to remain free of political interference. It is overseen by a panel of nine members, appointed by the governor, who served for six years and hire a state schools chief.

Sen. de Valle said the governor's criticism of the board also ignored a more fundamental problem with Illinois schools: lack of funding equity between wealthy and poor districts. For years, critics have said that Illinois districts are too dependent on local property taxes rather than direct state support, a system they say leaves poorer systems perennially short of cash.

State Chief Responds

Superintendent Schiller said of the governor's speech: "The focus has been placed on politics and power, and not on the equity and access issues in Illinois. This is an opportunity not to address such critical issues."

Mr. Schiller, a former state schools chief in Michigan, said he had no hint of Mr. Blagojevich's proposed overhaul. He took issue with several of the governor's accusations about the board, including his charge that the agency had lagged in helping teachers gain necessary certification.

The superintendent said that the governor's line- item vetoes last year had forced the education agency to cut certification staffing, and that teacher-training efforts across Illinois had been hampered by factors that had nothing to do with the board.

Sen. Valle praised the state superintendent's work.

"He's been one of the most responsive and courageous superintendents we've had," the lawmaker said. "It's going to be one hell of a ride in Illinois over the next few months."

—Sean Cavanagh


Flexibility, Teacher Raises Top Perdue's School Plans

Streamlining Georgia's child-care and early education services, restricting driving privileges for disruptive students, and building more flexibility into the state's accountability system are the central features of Gov. Sonny Perdue's education agenda this year.

Gov. Sonny Perdue

The governor has labeled his package after the Web site that provides more information about the proposals.

In his second State of the State Address, given Jan. 14, the first-term Republican said he wanted to replace "demoralizing" letter grades for low-performing schools with numerical scores so progress could be more closely monitored. As schools improved, he added, they would get more flexibility.

"The purpose of setting high standards of accountability is to inspire and empower, not to play 'gotcha,'" he said.

Gov. Perdue also proposed a 2 percent pay raise for all teachers, with additional increases going to veteran educators, meaning that 75 percent of the state's teachers would receive a 5 percent raise this year. Teachers did not receive a raise during the first year of Mr. Perdue's administration.

And the governor said he wanted to "restore the respect that teachers deserve" by acting more quickly to punish unruly students. "Students need to know they can lose their driving privileges if they disrupt the learning process," he said.

Mr. Perdue also reiterated his position on changes to the state's nationally known HOPE Scholarship program, which has become so costly that the state is looking for ways to trim its costs.

He supports setting a cutoff score on the SAT college-entrance exam to help determine who receives the scholarships, which currently are available to any Georgia students who graduate from high school with averages of B or higher. Critics say using an SAT cutoff would unfairly exclude generally lower-scoring black and Hispanic students from receiving the scholarships.

Mr. Perdue said: "I believe that linking the SAT to HOPE will motivate students to take the test seriously and will lead to better preparation for college and higher SAT scores."

—Linda Jacobson


Baldacci Advocates Laptops for More Students

Gov. John E. Baldacci of Maine proposed last week to expand the state's laptop- computer initiative for middle school students to include 9th graders. He unveiled the plan in his Jan. 20 State of the State Address.

Gov. John E. Baldacci

The first-term Democrat also wants more high school students to take advantage of the state's higher education opportunities, and is willing to help by proposing to offer two free community college classes to seniors who otherwise would not attend. Gov. Baldacci announced that, since the state converted its technical college system to a community college system last year, the number of community college students had increased by 1,300, or 18 percent, over the number of technical college students last year.

He also declared his goal of having 70 percent of the state's high school graduates seek a higher education, by the end of this decade. Currently, about 55 percent of state graduates do so.

In addition to giving 9th graders access to laptops next year, he also wants to give their parents access to computer skills through online worker-training programs.

"Maine is poised to develop an entire generation with one of the most marketable skills in the world," Gov. Baldacci said of the proposals. Maine's laptop program, which so far includes 7th and 8th graders, has drawn wide attention. ("Digital Balancing Act," this issue.)

But the governor acknowledged that many state residents are concerned about high tax rates at a time when Maine's economy is struggling, having lost thousands of manufacturing and agricultural jobs in the 1990s.

—Joetta L. Sack


Struggling Districts Could Gain Under Plan

Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts announced an ambitious education initiative, even as he vowed not to raise taxes and pledged to streamline wasteful government spending in his Jan. 15 State of the State Address.

Gov. Mitt Romney

The Republican governor's "Legacy of Learning" proposal would provide $34 million to help the state's lowest-performing school districts. Those mostly urban districts, which include Boston, would receive full-day-kindergarten programs, intensive after-school and summer school help, and a mandatory course for parents of students in low-performing schools to encourage them to participate more in their children's education.

Under the plan, $10 million would go to districts to help schools manage discipline problems, recruit and retain science and mathematics teachers, and help pay for state intervention efforts in districts declared "underperforming" by the state board of education.

The initiative would also launch what the governor called an "ambitious school building program" that would address a backlog of school renovation and rebuilding projects. Gov. Romney said he would "jump-start" more than 100 school construction and remodeling projects.

Students who scored among the top quarter on the state's accountability exams, which all students must pass in mathematics and English to graduate, would under the plan be awarded four years of free tuition at the University of Massachusetts or any other state or community college. Students in the top 10 percent would be awarded four years of free tuition and $2,000 in annual aid to help pay for fees.

The governor said the initiative could be paid for by making state government more efficient. The state could, among other measures, merge the state turnpike authority with the highway department and modernize construction and bidding rules to meet those of other states, Mr. Romney added.

—John Gehring


State Sees No End to Belt-Tightening

In his sixth State of the State Address, Gov. Mike Johanns proposed making a temporary cut in Nebraska school aid permanent in order to help close a projected $211 million budget gap in the current two-year, $5.4 billion budget for fiscal 2004 and 2005.

Gov. Mike Johanns

Changing the school aid formula was one of five major initiatives the Republican governor spoke of in his Jan. 15 annual address to the legislature. The proposed change would save the Cornhusker State a projected $166.1 million in school aid payments in the upcoming 2005-07 biennium.

Gov. Johanns also recommended that the maximum school tax levy of $1.05 per $100 of valuation should remain, instead of returning to the $1 cap as previously planned by legislators when they approved what had been a two-year plan in the last legislative session.

He acknowledged that his proposal to extend the cut in school aid—along with his other four initiatives, including plans to revamp child-protective services and reform how mental-health care is delivered— weren't easily decided.

"Each one of these five major areas of reform represents tough issues that require difficult decisions," Mr. Johanns said.

The governor also endorsed Bill 698, which would change the way state school aid is distributed to address a lawsuit filed by some school districts about the high costs of educating poor and non-English-proficient students.

"The bill also tackles concerns that districts have raised about the grade-weighting, cost-allowance, and adjusted-valuation aspects of our current finance formula," Mr. Johanns said.

—Rhea R. Borja

North Dakota

Hoeven Continues Push to Raise Teacher Salaries

Citing a growing economy and the importance of a high-quality education system for future prosperity, Gov. John Hoeven has proposed a $75 million increase in K-12 spending for North Dakota over the next four years.

Gov. John Hoeven

In his Jan. 17 State of the State Address, the Republican said the bulk of the money would be used to increase funding to the state's poorest school districts and to raise teacher salaries.

"We can give our kids the best education," Gov. Hoeven said. "And we will attract and retain the best and brightest teachers."

Historically, North Dakota teachers' have been among the lowest-paid in the nation. Their pay, however, has climbed since 2000, under Mr. Hoeven's plan to raise average annual compensation. The minimum pay rate over that time has risen from $16,000 a year to $21,500.

Last summer, Mr. Hoeven called state legislators back for a special session after he vetoed a spending bill that did not include an additional $75 million for schools, a portion of which was earmarked for teacher pay. The final $333 million education budget for fiscal 2004 included the additional $75 million and represented a 6 percent increase over the previous fiscal year.

—Kathleen Kennedy Manzo


Warner Wants New Tax for Education Funding

Virginia Gov. Mark Warner tried to sell his proposed overhaul of the state tax system and a major budget increase for K-12 education during his State of the Commonwealth Address on Jan. 14.

Gov. Mark Warner

Gov. Warner proposed a $774 million hike in elementary and secondary education spending over the next two years. The current two-year education budget is about $8.4 billion, increased slightly by lawmakers last year.

The Democrat, who is entering his third year in office, urged the Republican-controlled legislature to make the tax code fairer to middle- and lower-class Virginians. He argued that his proposed penny sales-tax increase would relieve local governments from paying for large parts of school budgets and other expenses.

Mr. Warner said the revamped tax structure would require wealthy taxpayers to pay a fairer share, and would give rural areas hit hard by declines in the tobacco business and manufacturing a chance to land new businesses.

The governor said the chances were dismal for a repeat of the 1990s economic expansion that included a technology-jobs boom in the Virginia suburbs outside Washington. Declines in technology and tourism after the 2001 terrorist attacks put further dents in the state's economy.

Even with some tax increases and steady business growth, "Virginia faces continuing budget shortfalls at least through the end of the decade," Mr. Warner said.

In his speech, the governor also recognized Oliver Hill, who helped argue a Virginia case that led to the historic Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka ruling 50 years ago by the U.S. Supreme Court.

—Alan Richard

Vol. 23, Issue 20, Pages 17,20

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