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School reform: the missing
ingredient has been courage

by Charles N. Wheeler III

"DAUNT: to lessen the courage of." Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary

As motivational speakers go, no one would ever accuse Gov. Jim Edgar of being another Knute Rockne or even a Lou Holtz.

Elected officials have
been afraid to forego
partisan advantage, afraid
to trust voters to understand
that true reform
requires higher taxes.

In his seventh State of the State address, however, the governor seemed as intent on spurring his listeners to action as any Notre Dame football coach who ever delivered a pregame pep talk.

The subject of Edgar's exhortations to the Illinois General Assembly was the need to revamp the state's system for funding public schools, which he correctly deemed the challenge most important to the state's future. In terming it "the most daunting" as well, the governor deftly fingered the critical factor whose absence has perpetuated a system that many people Edgar included consider unfair.

Quite simply, the missing ingredient has been courage. For too many years, elected officials have been fearful to do what most acknowledge is needed to bring equity and adequacy to education finance. They have been afraid to forego partisan advantage, afraid to trust voters to understand that true reform requires higher state taxes, afraid to do more than what is politically expedient.

Thus, Illinois remains a state in which, as Edgar noted, nearly 60 cents of every dollar spent on public schools comes from local property taxes, and some school districts can spend five times as much per student as others. "That is not fair," Edgar said. "And it is simply not right."

And so, like a general rallying his troops, the governor urged lawmakers to act on school funding this session.

"We should not duck our own responsibility," he said. "Let's reform education funding. This spring. Not next year, this year. Not after the next election, before the next election."

The prodding clearly is on target. Devising a new funding system for public schools is not an intellectual endeavor of the same magnitude as finding a cure for AIDS or developing a fusion reactor. Nor does it require the sort of creative genius manifest in Beethoven's Ninth Symphony or Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel.

Indeed, as the governor noted in his address, the blueprint for reform already exists, embodied in the work of the commission headed by former University of Illinois President Stanley Ikenberry.

When the panel made its recommendations last year, they were dismissed summarily by Republican legislative leaders afraid of election-day fallout. Even the panel's modest proposal that a constitutional amendment be placed on the November ballot to gauge voter sentiment was deemed too risky. However, leaders and candidates of both parties pledged to make education reform a top priority in 1997.

"I heard them say they didn't need a vote of the people, which I have favored, to force them into action," the governor recalled. "And so I say let us act."

Edgar offered no detailed reform plan of his own, instead repeating his endorsement of the major tenets of the Ikenberry panel. They include:

* Cutting property taxes by at least $1.5 billion.

* Setting $4,225 as the minimum per student funding level needed to assure an adequate education. (Some 600,000 children currently attend school in districts that spend less.)

* Requiring the state to pay at least half the basic cost of providing a quality education to every school child.

* Demanding more accountability and better results from schools.

Equally important is the need to be candid about school finance reform, Edgar noted. "We should be straight with taxpayers," he said. "We can't substantially reduce their local property taxes and make the system fairer without increasing some state taxes to offset the loss in revenues to school districts."

While the income tax is the fairest, the governor said he is willing to consider a combination of revenue measures and other possibilities. For example, Senate President James "Pate" Philip, a Wood Dale Republican, has mused about restoring the state sales

42 / February 1997 Illinois Issues

tax on food, which would bring in about $700 million, to replace property taxes on a dollar-for-dollar basis.

House Speaker Michael J. Madigan, a Chicago Democrat, meanwhile, is concerned that shifting the school funding burden to state income taxes from local property taxes could provide a huge windfall for business, which pays about half of local property taxes, but only a little more than one-eighth of state income taxes. (One possible solution: Use state dollars to replace residential property taxes for schools and impose a state property tax on nonresidential real estate, distributing revenues on a perpupil basis statewide.

Although some might fault Edgar for not offering more specifics, such criticism seems amiss. Too many details too early invites lawmakers to get hung up on the fine print and the governor's authorship. A better approach is the one Edgar is following, working with funding reform advocates to fashion a compromise.

"It is very important that those who favor reform work in concert," he noted. "Division means defeat."

Lawmakers will be reluctant to act, Edgar acknowledged. "If school funding reform were easy, it would have been done decades ago," he said. The governor's pep talk was a first step toward overcoming legislative inertia. Now, Edgar and lawmakers must have the courage to make education finance reform a reality for Illinois schoolchildren.

Charles N. Wheeler III is director of the Public Affairs Reporting program at the University of Illinois at Springfield.

State of the State highlights:

Campaign reform. A later primary, greater disclosure for campaign donors, a higher threshold ($250 from $ 150) for individual contributions, tougher penalties for violations.

Women's health. Initiative for prevention and treatment of health problems women face. Headed by Brenda Edgar. Includes support network, 800-number and public awareness campaign.

Welfare reform. Meeting with officers of top Illinois companies, urging them to provide jobs for people coming off welfare.

Electric deregulation. Same time-frame for all consumers to share in savings; no favoritism for big business. Charles N. Wheeler III

Illinois Issues February 1997 / 43

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