States

Illinois Governor’s Reform Plan In Jeopardy

By Sean Cavanagh — May 26, 2004 4 min read
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Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich’s push to gain more control over the Illinois education bureaucracy is meeting resistance from one of the state’s most powerful lawmakers, who has pitched a reform proposal of his own.

The governor and leaders of the state Senate are backing legislation that would allow Mr. Blagojevich, a first-term Democrat, to oust all of the current nine members of the state board of education and appoint new ones.

“I’m not satisfied with the state of education in Illinois,” Mr. Blagojevich said in a May 13 statement on his proposal. “We are not doing enough to help our local schools. And we’re not doing enough to protect the local taxpayers’ money and invest it in the classroom, where it belongs.”

The governor’s plan, however, has met a roadblock: Speaker of the House Michael J. Madigan, a Chicago Democrat, last week offered an alternative bill that would bring changes to the state board, though at a slower pace.

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The governor’s proposal would allow him to appoint an entirely new board this summer, subject to Senate confirmation. Five new members would serve until January 2007; the other four would stay until January 2009. After that, members’ terms would be reduced from the current six years to four, and the governor would have the power to remove them at any time.

Last week, the proposal was being amended so that the governor could only end the terms of the panelists prematurely if they were guilty of negligence, malfeasance, or similar setbacks. Under the Blagojevich plan, no more than five board members would be allowed to belong to any one political party. Currently, four Republicans and three Democrats sit on the board. Two seats are vacant.

Gov. Blagojevich has also said he would like to remove the state schools superintendent, Robert E. Schiller, who was hired by the board in 2002, before the governor took office.

The proposal would also give the governor line- item- veto power over the state board of education, which is also the name given to the agency that oversees public schools, and create more centralized purchasing processes for school districts that Mr. Blagojevich contends would be more cost- efficient. The governor says his plan would save schools between $250 million and $450 million over the next four years.

The governor’s bill has the backing of Senate President Emil Jones, a Democrat and Miguel del Valle, the chairman of the Senate education committee.

Mr. Jones’ spokeswoman, Cindy Davidsmeyer, said the state education system would benefit from having the governor more directly involved in overseeing it, in the same way that Chicago’s 438,000-student district was helped by legislation that allowed Mayor Richard M. Daley to take control of the public schools in 1995.

“The mayor took charge of the Chicago schools,” she said, “and we have a better school system because of it.”

But the governor’s plan did not satisfy the House speaker, who questioned whether ousting the entire state board would bring improvements in state government and local school districts. “The issue is one of continuity,” said Steve Brown, a spokesman for Mr. Madigan. “Does it make sense to do this in one fell swoop?”

Ripe for Politics?

Last week, the speaker introduced legislation that seemed aimed at addressing his concerns. The speaker’s bill would remove only five current board members, allowing the governor to replace them. Four current members would remain, with three of them serving until 2009 and one serving until 2007.

Future Illinois governors would then be given the opportunity to appoint five new members with the start of each term. The terms of the four other board members would overlap between governors’ terms, allowing them to stay.

The speaker’s bill sailed through a House committee with unanimous, bipartisan support and awaited a vote of that chamber late last week. At the same time, the governor’s bill awaited a vote of the full Senate.

Illinois’ legislature was officially scheduled to adjourn on May 21, but lawmakers were expected to continue work beyond that date.

Ms. Davidsmeyer said while Gov. Blagojevich and the Senate president would push their version of education overhaul, she did not rule out a compromise between their plan and Speaker Madigan’s. “Everything is certainly open to negotiation at this point,” she said.

Superintendent Schiller was generally supportive of the House speaker’s plan, a spokeswoman said last week. The schools chief was far less impressed with the governor’s proposal, likening it to a “power grab” in an interview last week.

Mr. Schiller, whose three-year contract runs through 2005, acknowledged it would be difficult to remain as superintendent if the board that hired him were ousted. “Unquestionably, this is meant to be a clean sweep,” Mr. Schiller said of the governor’s plan. “We see this [approach] as ripe for politics and no accountability.”

Janet Steiner, the chairwoman of the state board, also questioned the wisdom of removing the entire board while the state is coping with the demands of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Many Illinois districts are also grappling with budget shortfalls, exacerbated by economic troubles and evaporating property-tax revenues. (“Illinois ‘Watch List’ Snares Rich and Poor Districts,” Sept. 3, 2003.)

“As far as I can see, it’s a political move,” Ms. Steiner said of the governor’s plan. “It’s been a political move from the very beginning.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 26, 2004 edition of Education Week as Illinois Governor’s Reform Plan In Jeopardy

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