Illinois’ Optimistic Governor Seeks Preschool Program
Although his state is lacking money, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich is apparently not lacking ambition. In his first State of the State Address, the Democrat proposed broad education initiatives affecting students in preschool through college.
The governor promised the legislature on March 12 that he would present a plan to establish universal preschool for all of the state’s children deemed at risk—an initiative to be phased in over time because of its cost.
“In an ideal world, preschool for every child would begin tomorrow,” Gov. Blagojevich said, “but an ideal world doesn’t operate on a $5 billion budget deficit.”
That projected budget shortfall, out of a 2003 state budget of $52.6 billion, coupled with cuts in state spending and bleak economic conditions, have socked many school districts.
Late last year, state education officials warned that as many as 85 percent of the 893 districts in Illinois could be facing deficits this school year. (“Illinois Bails Out Ailing District; Others Struggling,” Jan. 8, 2003.)
The state’s schools are already coping with a cut of $176 million, or 4 percent, from a total state K-12 budget of $8.3 billion in fiscal 2003.
Many details of Mr. Blagojevich’s proposals are still taking shape, gubernatorial spokesman Tom Schafer said. But the universal preschool program would cost an estimated $25 million the first year, and $90 million over three years, he said, and cover about 25,000 children.
A screening process to aid families applying for help likely would be set up with input from the state board of education, Mr. Schafer said.
Mr. Blagojevich, a former Chicago congressman who took office Jan. 14, ending 26 years of GOP control of the governorship, also outlined several other education initiatives.
They included the creation of $5,000 annual scholarships for college juniors and seniors who agree to take jobs in hard-to- fill teaching posts in Illinois public schools. The scholarships could rise to $10,000 for candidates agreeing to go to work in communities with the most severe shortages.
In addition, Gov. Blagojevich proposed tripling the amount of unpaid yearly leave for employees in private companies, from eight hours to 24 hours, a move he said would help make it easier for parents to attend school activities.
He also promised to consider giving every teacher a voice-mail box to receive questions from parents—a feature that is already available in some schools.
Some state lawmakers publicly questioned why the governor was proposing new education programs, without explaining how the state would pay for its long list of existing school needs.
Mr. Schafer said the governor’s detailed plans for dealing with the state’s fiscal crisis would emerge in a speech Mr. Blagojevich plans to deliver April 9. “It’s been the focus of almost every waking hour of his administration,” Mr. Schafer said of the crisis.
Some education advocates have called for the state to overhaul tax support for schools by reducing the current reliance on property taxes and injecting school coffers with revenue from sales or income taxes instead. But the governor has pledged not to raise sales or income taxes.
Rep. Bob Biggins, the ranking Republican on the House appropriations committee for general services, said that the legislature and the public have little appetite for raising taxes to help school districts that may have dug their own budget holes.
“They created the problem,” Rep. Biggins said of districts. “They can solve the problem. Their spending priorities are self-determined.”
Illinois Federation of Teachers spokeswoman Gail Purkey, whose organization endorsed Gov. Blagojevich in last November’s election, praised his preschool and scholarship plans.
Her union already uses mentoring and induction programs to encourage more new instructors to remain in schools.
“We’re trying to tackle it from the other end,” Ms. Purkey said. “People go—they don’t stay.”
Governor Makes Cuts To Balance State Budget
Alabama’s new Republican governor delivered some bad news this month in his first State of the State Address.
“Although our state is full of promise, our government faces a fiscal crisis of historic proportions,” Gov. Bob Riley said March 4.
Mr. Riley, a former U.S. representative who defeated incumbent Democrat Donald Siegelman in November, said the best state estimates suggest a fiscal 2004 budget shortfall of at least $500 million.
The formal budget he submitted two days later reflects largely across-the- board cuts to the current $1.3 billion general fund, and to the $4.2 billion Education Trust Fund—the main pot of money for precollegiate and higher education—to meet the state mandate for a balanced budget.
Most state agencies would see reductions of more than 18 percent under the plan. Many items in the education fund would drop by 6.3 percent, though mandatory spending for teachers’ health care and retirement are shielded.
Overall, the budget would provide $2.9 billion in state spending for K-12 education, compared with $3 billion in the current fiscal year.
But Gov. Riley made clear he did not intend for the final budget to mirror his formal request.
“To avoid these draconian cuts, we are going to change government in Alabama—and we are going to change it so fundamentally that we will never face such a crisis again,” the governor said.
Mr. Riley said he would not consider additional taxes “until we reform the policies and practices that have created the problems we face today.”
He vowed a top-down review of education. “We must ask the tough questions of what is wrong,” he said. “If it’s simply an issue of more money, then we’ll find the necessary funding. But, before we increase spending, we’re going to cut waste, eliminate duplication, and guarantee our dollars are going into the classroom.”
—Erik W. Robelen