A Memorable Blagojevich Moment

By Sean Cavanagh — December 30, 2008 2 min read
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Every week seems to bring new drama for besieged Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Will he resign, or be impeached? Can he successfully defend himself against federal corruption charges? Most recently, will the man he has nominated to replace President-elect Barack Obama in the U.S. Senate, former Illinois attorney general Roland Burris, ever be allowed to serve?

But those of us who focus on education might be asking another question: What does Robert Schiller make of all of this?

Some readers will recall that Schiller served as the Illinois’ schools superintendent for two years before being essentially pushed out of the job by Blagojevich. The Illinois governor made his intentions known in stunning fashion on Jan. 15, 2004, when he unloaded on Schiller’s agency, the Illinois state board of education, during his annual State of the State address to the state legislature—with Schiller sitting in the audience.

Blagojevich used the speech to describe the board as a “Soviet-style bureaucracy,” which served as “an albatross to our principals and teachers,” and compared overhauling it to tearing down the Berlin Wall. He called for stripping the agency of its duties and replacing it with a new entity answerable to him and the legislature.

Shortly after the speech, I called Schiller to get his response. The then-schools chief said Blagojevich had given him no hint that the very public dressing-down was coming. “The focus has been placed on politics and power, and not on the equity and access issues in Illinois,” Schiller told me at the time. Schiller also told other reporters he’d been blindsided by Blagojevich.

Lawmakers seemed also seemed taken aback by the speech. In my story on that rumpus, I quoted the chair of the state senate’s education committee, who described Schiller as “one of the most responsive and courageous superintendents we’ve had.” Before coming to Illinois, Schiller served as state schools superintendent in Michigan and was appointed by Maryland state officials to serve as interim chief executive of the Baltimore schools.

State lawmakers ended up blocking much of Blagojevich’s proposed overhaul, arguing that his plans would infringe on the independence of the state board of education, as spelled out in the Illinois constitution. (They’ve fought a number of his education proposals since then, and relations, even before the impeachment furor, had grown toxic.) Lawmakers did, however, give Blagojevich more power to appoint members to the nine-member panel that oversees the agency, also called the board of education. Later during 2004, a newly appointed board bought out Schiller’s contract and replaced him with Randy J. Dunn, a former university professor and schools superintendent.

Schiller later worked for the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence. In 2006, he was also finalist for schools chief in Anne Arundel County, Md., a major suburban system, though he wasn’t selected.

Over time, some statehouse observers in Springfield came to regard surprise attacks as a sort of signature Blagojevich move during major legislative addresses. This story in the St. Louis Post Dispatch offers examples of the governor using big policy speeches to issue verbal jabs—singling out industries, like trucking or pharmaceuticals, or foes at the state or federal level, according to the article. “Who will be this year’s target?” the 2008 story asks.

In 2004, the target was Schiller, though it appears others would follow.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.