School Funding Pivotal in Ill. Governor's Race

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Although the race is still in its early stages, the campaign for governor in Illinois this year appears to be turning into a debate over school funding.

The original impetus for the issue came from the Democratic candidate, State Comptroller Dawn Clark Netsch, who has cast the issue as the centerpiece of her campaign. The Republican incumbent, Jim Edgar, last month countered with his own school-finance proposal.

School lobbyists and administrators said last week that they were optimistic that, after watching the state share of school funding drop steadily, they may finally be assured of a more prominent place on the state's agenda.

Mr. Edgar won office four years ago by promising not to raise taxes, and his adherence to that pledge has left him little room to navigate. In 1992, he opposed a constitutional amendment that would have required that the state pick up a greater share of school spending. It was narrowly defeated.

More recently, the state has found itself without enough money to help shore up budget problems in the Chicago schools.

Many in the education community feel that Mr. Edgar, who currently serves as the chairman of the Education Commission of the States, has not been a forceful advocate for Illinois schools.

In a speech last month to the Illinois Association of School Administrators, Governor Edgar said reliable school funding would be a hallmark of a second term.

"You want more stability and predictability in education funding, and I, too, want those things,'' the Governor told the group.

State Funding Guarantee

Under his plan, which he billed as a $1 billion funding increase over four years, the state would guarantee that 36 percent of the state's general fund would be devoted to elementary and secondary education and the state's colleges.

Further, Mr. Edgar said, any new money raised through riverboat gambling would be earmarked for capital improvements in schools, ranging from computer purchases to renovations. The Governor estimated that between $200 million and $500 million could be generated through gambling proceeds each year.

School districts would have to allocate a local match to receive the funds, which would be distributed on a sliding scale targeted to poorer districts.

Mr. Edgar's finance plan was also viewed as a gesture toward approving riverboat casinos in Chicago, which have been a thorny political issue within the state.

But observers said that even with a plan, Mr. Edgar has yet to steal the thunder that propelled Ms. Netsch from dark horse to Democratic nominee.

Observers said she stands a good chance of becoming the first Democrat endorsed by the Illinois Education Association for governor in 18 years.

"Our opponent wants this to be a prominent issue and, to date, has made it a single issue,'' said Mike Belletire, Governor Edgar's deputy chief of staff.

Ms. Netsch continues to make the most of the issue and has blasted Mr. Edgar for his proposal.

"It doesn't do anything,'' she said. "I don't think that's what most people want.''

Democrat's Plan

Under the Democrat's plan, the individual income-tax rate would rise from 3 percent to 4.25 percent, while corporate taxes would increase from 4.8 percent to 6.8 percent. She would devote $1 billion of the proceeds to reduce local property taxes and $500 million to cut taxes on incomes below $75,000.

The remaining $1 billion in annual tax revenue would be devoted to K-12 education under a new funding formula.

Armed with that plan to raise taxes, Ms. Netsch was a surprise winner in the Democratic primary. But skeptics said the victory may have been due more to a clever television advertisement--which showed the candidate making trick shots at a pool table--than to the substance of her education plan.

The Governor's advisers charged that her plan cannot pass the legislature. And if it did, they said, it would not deliver the kind of windfall it promises to schools.

Over the long haul, Mr. Belletire said, Mr. Edgar's attention to issues such as crime prevention, welfare and health-care reform, and economic development will win over voters.

School lobbyists, meanwhile, think that no matter who wins, the future looks brighter for the schools as a result of the attention Ms. Netsch has cast on classroom spending.

Vol. 13, Issue 37

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