This spring’s session of the Illinois General Assembly had one primary focus: Money. Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who had avoided talk about the state’s ongoing financial problems during his campaign, began his term by announcing that the state would have a $5 billion deficit by July 2004.
Despite the massive shortfall—10 percent of the state budget—Chicago Public Schools, as well as elementary and secondary education overall, came out ahead. Chief accomplishments include:
Increasing the minimum per-pupil spending by $250, raising “foundation level” funding to $4,810. The increase will yield an additional $73 million for CPS. Lawmakers earmarked more money for early childhood education as well. (See related story.)
Reinstating some bargaining rights for the Chicago Teachers Union, which allows it to negotiate the impact of workplace issues such as class size and layoffs.
What contributed to the success is that the new governor and legislators made education funding a top priority, and the shift to Democratic leadership meant more leverage for city politicians.
Practically speaking, the most important change was the turnover in the Senate. Under former Senate President James “Pate” Philip’s control, many proposals affecting Chicago schools could never get a hearing. Last year, for instance, Republicans prevented a vote on the compromise between the CTU and CPS over collective bargaining rights, even though lawmakers in both houses agreed to approve the bill. This spring, Democrats fast-tracked the measure and not a single legislator in either chamber voted against it.
And the leadership at both CPS and the CTU found common ground on issues they brought to Springfield, which contributed to the positive dynamic.
This year, schools CEO Arne Duncan and CTU President Deborah Lynch worked together on the collective bargaining measure that the union stipulated had to be approved before it would begin negotiating a new contract.
Howard L. Heath, the CTU’s vice president, says the union achieved six of its nine legislative priorities this session-a far higher percentage than the group usually accomplishes. He attributes the successes to the turnover in the Senate and the union’s focus on classroom issues.
“Springfield is sick of hearing ‘Chicago fights in Springfield,'” says Andrew Wade, executive director of the Chicago School Leadership Cooperative, referring to squabbles in previous years between CPS and CTU or other interest groups. “It’s much better if we have a united front to advocate on behalf of Chicago issues.”
Looking ahead, better relations between CPS, the union and other school reform groups could bode well as advocates gear up to push for school finance reform in next year’s legislative session. Observers predict that finance reform will be the No. 1 issue in 2004.
“While the additional funds were a significant achievement … many schools are still deficit spending. The school funding crisis is no longer an urban issue,” says Bindu Batchu, manager of Network 21, a school reform coalition that advocates for property tax reform for education. “We cannot afford to dodge the structural issue of changing the way schools are funded.”
Here is a rundown of several measures that impact Chicago Public Schools.
What it does: In addition to the increased foundation level, the district will receive an additional $37.3 million for specially earmarked grants this year. All told, the state will send $1.2 billion to Chicago for day-to-day school operations.
Legislators tweaked the state aid formula to use more current estimates of poverty. Instead of using U.S. Census figures, updated every 10 years, to compute funding allocations, the state will use annual estimates calculated by the Illinois Department of Human Services. Impoverished districts are expected to benefit most.
However, some line items in the education budget got axed. Due to staffing cuts, the Illinois State Board of Education will close its regional office in Chicago, which handles teacher certification among other services. Also, funds previously earmarked for teacher mentoring and gifted student programs were consolidated into the general fund.
Politics: “Certainly this session we made the best out of a bad situation,” said Sen. Miguel del Valle, the Chicago Democrat who chairs the Senate Education Committee.
Outcome: Blagojevich signed the education budget July 9.
Details: HB 2663, HB 2750
What it does: The state education budget includes $500 million for school construction projects across the state; roughly $100 million is likely to go to Chicago, according to del Valle. New this year is a requirement that the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) compile every two years a list of all school district capital projects.
Politics: Senate Democrats wanted to spend $1 billion on school construction, but Blagojevich cut that number in half, which is about the same amount appropriated last year. Local school districts and ISBE opposed the requirement to list capital projects claiming excessive costs for conducting the statewide reviews.
Outcome: The capital budget awaits Blagojevich’s signature.
Details: SB 1239, SB 1369
School financing reform
What it does: The first bill Emil Jones (D-Chicago) introduced as Senate president would have made school funding an automatic appropriation in the state’s budget process, much like pension contributions. The goal was to minimize the politics that surround education funding every year. Several other proposals called for changing the state’s primary school funding source from property taxes to income taxes.
Politics: This is one of the thorniest issues in Illinois politics. Many lawmakers view the current property tax-based system as unfair, but they concede that changing it would require a large tax hike that could hurt well-to-do school districts. Past efforts at major school funding reform have failed.
Jones and del Valle say they want to revisit the issue next year. Del Valle noted that most of the gains for elementary and secondary education this year came at the expense of state colleges and universities. Efforts to seriously consider this issue next year could be hampered by mid-term elections and Blagojevich’s vow to not raise sales or income taxes.
Outcome: Most proposals stalled before getting a hearing. Del Valle, for instance, says he filed his legislation as a prelude to discussions about reforms for next year. “Simply put, I didn’t have the votes,” he explains. Jones’ continuing appropriations bill passed the Senate and gained 24 co-sponsors in the House, where it, too, languished.
Details: SB 1, SB 23, SB 696, HB 208
CTU collective bargaining rights
What it does: The measure allows the Chicago Teachers Union to negotiate the impact of workplace issues such as class size, layoffs, privatization and staffing schedules. It also contains provisions that require CPS and the union to work cooperatively to improve schools.
Politics: Last year, City Hall and CPS initially objected to the measure, which CTU officials insisted be enacted before they would negotiate a new contract. Eventually, all parties agreed, but Senate President Philip never called the bill for a vote. When Democrats took control of the Senate in January, they quickly passed the measure.
Outcome: Signed into law on April 16; effective immediately.
Details: SB 19
What it does: Tacked onto the collective bargaining bill is a provision for doubling the number of charters in Chicago to 30, and a new stipulation that new charter holders may only run one school. Also, it requires that more than half of the teachers in new charter schools and 75 percent of those in existing charters must be fully certified by 2006, and that charter students take national standardized tests.
Politics: Most of the new provisions were negotiated between CPS and CTU when they revised the union’s collective bargaining rights. In the budget he unveiled in April, Blagojevich had proposed eliminating all funding for charter schools, but legislators fought to reinstate the funding to $4.2 million, which the governor later reduced to $3.8 million. Last year, charter schools received $7.4 million.
Outcome: Signed into law on April 16; effective immediately.
Details: SB 19
What it does: The bill establishes Professional Personnel Leadership Committees (PPLCs) to replace Professional Personnel Advisory Committees. More than just a name change, the refashioned groups of teachers will provide greater input on educational matters to principals and local school councils.
PPLCs will be able to gather information on budget, staffing and curriculum without prior approval from LSCs or principals; meet with principals monthly; place items on the agenda of regular LSC meetings; and review school improvement plans before the LSC votes on them.
Outcome: Signed into law June 30; effective July 1.
Details: HB 1235
The General Assembly set up a schedule for testing students as required by the federal No Child Left Behind act. Beginning in 2005, students in grades 3 through 8 will be tested annually in reading and math; other subject areas will be tested less frequently. The law also raises from 25 to 38 the number of hours students can spend taking state-mandated tests.
Lawmakers also set up an accountability system-another No Child requirement-that imposes sanctions on school districts that do not show continued academic improvement.
Approved and awaits the governor’s signature. (HB 2352, SB 878)
Resident college tuition for non-citizens
Non-citizens who have resided in a school district for three consecutive years and have applied for citizenship will now be eligible to pay resident tuition rates at state colleges.
The Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refuge Rights predicts that half of the 2,200 eligible students statewide will take advantage of the new law. Of those, roughly half are likely to attend community colleges, the rest will go to four-year institutions, the group predicts. Immigrant groups launched a well-organized grassroots campaign to win this issue. Blagojevich signed the bill May 20. (HB 60)
Under the federal No Child Left Behind act, teacher aides must complete 60 semester hours of college credit to work in classrooms. This legislation allows “relevant life experiences,” such as prior work in the classroom, to be counted. It passed both houses and awaits the governor’s signature. (HB 2350)
Lawmakers approved a largely symbolic measure that provides state grants to help school districts reduce class sizes to 20 students in kindergarten through 3rd grade. Even if Blagojevich signs it, the measure would have little effect because there’s no money earmarked for the grants in the 2004 budget. ISBE estimates the program would cost $100 million a year for teacher salaries alone. (SB 902)
The CTU pushed for this bill, which allows school districts to establish summer programs for at-risk kindergarteners. The extra time could be used to teach children primary colors, numbers and other basic skills children should know before they enter kindergarten. The bill passed the legislature; and awaits the governor’s signature. (SB 903)
A measure that nearly passed would have required school districts to provide suspended students with a list of local organizations that offer educational opportunities. Rep. Monique Davis (D-Chicago) argues that children with disciplinary problems “need education more than anyone else.” She suggests such groups could give those students a chance to learn and meet mentors. The issue may be revisited during this fall’s veto session. (HB 205)
Teacher induction and mentoring
The measure requires public schools to develop and implement induction and mentoring programs for new teachers. Districts could receive a $1,200 stipend each year, pending availability of state funds. Passed by both houses, but no funding was appropriated. (SB 533)
Prison tour program
This bill lets CPS develop a pilot program to identify students who may be at risk of committing crimes and, subject to parental approval, require them to take a guided tour of a prison to discourage criminal behavior. Approved and awaits the governor’s signature. (SB 1107)
The bill calls for U.S. History curricula in public elementary and high schools to include information on the contributions made by Asian Americans. Approved and awaits the governor’s signature. (SB 890)
Daniel C. Vock is a Springfield, Ill.-based writer.