Illinois Governor Flexes New Muscle Over Education

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Armed with new power under state law, Gov. Rod Blagojevich of Illinois has moved quickly to put his stamp on school policy by overhauling the state school board and taking an active role in hiring at the state education agency.

Supporters see those moves as both logical and necessary. The Democratic governor—who publicly blasted the education agency earlier this year as a slow-moving, wasteful bureaucracy—wanted to fill both entities with individuals who are both competent and committed to his ideas for reform.

“They were seeking out people they knew, in terms of their service and their skill sets,” said Becky Watts, a spokeswoman for the state education agency. “He wants to be accountable on education and for future governors of Illinois to be accountable.”

Some critics, though, worry that the governor’s influence in hiring at the state agency diminishes its independence, as established under the Illinois Constitution. Likewise, they ask whether Mr. Blagojevich’s appointees to the nine-member board will act independently of his interests.

“He’s using this backdoor opportunity to find people who will rubber-stamp the things he wants,” said Ronald J. Gidwitz, a Republican and one of several board members removed by the governor in September. “I don’t believe it was the intention of the constitution, or the legislature, to do that.”

New Hires

Gov. Blagojevich used the powers given to him this year by the legislature to appoint seven new members to the state board of education in September: four Democrats, one Republican, and two Independents.

The governor’s influence has also extended to the state education agency, also called the Illinois State Board of Education.

His office has been involved in the selection of nine employees since September, according to records provided by the agency. With eight of those, staff members from the governor’s office took an upfront role by approaching the prospects and interviewing them for the new jobs, Ms. Watts said.

Randy J. Dunn

Ultimately, Randy J. Dunn, the new interim state schools chief, was given the final power to reject any of those recommended by the governor’s office, she added.

The new hires include Eamon Kelly, 24, as the agency’s interim chief of staff. He previously served the governor as an assistant to the deputy governor, working on education issues, including teacher health insurance, according to information provided by the board of education.

Another new staff member, Jean Ladage, who will earn $60,000 a year as board services coordinator, was a former education policy adviser to the governor.

Mark Kolaz, hired as the agency’s assistant superintendent of operations for $110,000 a year, was an unpaid volunteer for Gov. Blagojevich’s 2002 campaign, the agency said. Mr. Kolaz previously served as an administrator at the state department of agriculture.

The new board members and agency staff members may have the governor’s blessing, but they also inherit major challenges. As of a month ago, 7,500 teachers were awaiting certification from the state, some of whom have been seeking that seal of approval for 15 months, Ms. Watts said. Previous board members have blamed the certification delays partly on budget cuts at the agency.

Newly appointed board member Brenda J. Holmes served as Mr. Blagojevich’s chief of staff for education before leaving that job to take the unpaid position on the board. While she is confident the panelists will act independently, Ms. Holmes said the governor was right to demand better performance from the board and the agency. “It truly was time to make changes, and shame on us if we can’t move forward and make some of these changes,” she said.

Gov. Blagojevich made his dissatisfaction with the education agency clear in January, when he described it as ineffective and unaccountable to taxpayers in his State of the State Address to the legislature. ("Blagojevich Sends Shockwaves Through Ed. Agency," Jan. 28, 2004.)

Shortly afterward, Mr. Blagojevich backed legislation to make the education agency a Cabinet-level department answerable to him. Lawmakers rejected the plan, arguing that the state constitution made the agency independent to keep it free of politics. But they eventually gave Mr. Blagojevich and future governors more say over the nine-member education board.

In September, the new board bought out the contract of state schools Superintendent Robert E. Schiller, whom the governor had targeted for removal. They replaced him with Mr. Dunn, an education professor at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and a former school district superintendent, as interim schools chief.

Mr. Schiller, like some of his predecessors, took office shortly before a new governor came to power, creating a familiar problem for the state: two divergent views of education policy, said Walt Warfield, the executive director of the Illinois Association of School Administrators.

“It was a conflict made in heaven,” said Mr. Warfield. He’s optimistic about the new board members. “We’re not going to have that age-old friction we’ve had.”

Team Approach

Traditionally, Illinois governors have had more say over education than in states where board members and superintendents are elected, said Kathy Christie, a vice president at the Denver-based Education Commission of the States. Illinois is one of 10 states where the governor appoints the board, and the board hires the superintendent, according to a recent ECS survey.

Jesse Ruiz, the newly appointed board chairman, said there needs to be stronger collaboration between the panel and the state’s top elected officials.

“He’s taking a much more active role in managing the system of education in Illinois,” Mr. Ruiz said of Mr. Blagojevich. “Are we working with the governor more than the last board? Of course. … I look at it as a team.”

Vol. 24, Issue 10, Pages 24, 28

Published in Print: November 3, 2004, as Illinois Governor Flexes New Muscle Over Education
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