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Saturday, July 20

Gapers Block

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When independent Democrat state Senator James Meeks announced that he would seriously consider an independent run at the governor's mansion if Rod Blagojevich didn't propose real school funding reform, there were guffaws and exclamations of dismay and frustration. Loyal Democrats kvetched at the idea, moderates grumbled about political extortion and conservatives teetered between laughter and suspicion.

Meeks, a socially conservative South Side minister who represents parts of the South Side of the city and parts of the near south suburbs, has been dramatically bringing attention to the inadequacies of the current school funding system in Illinois since first winning office in 2002. Yet despite his fiery rhetoric on the subject, few people expected his maverick behavior this year — it came as a general surprise when he basically held the Blagojevich administration, and with it the Illinois Democratic Party leadership, hostage to his demands for real reform.

A Meeks candidacy, cutting into the Democrats' African-American base in Chicago and suburban Cook County, would have effectively handed the governorship to Republican candidate Judy Baar Topinka.

Blagojevich and his staff worked frantically to find something that would appease Meeks, all the while claiming that the issue was a number one priority for the governor anyway and that Meeks' prospective candidacy had not prompted any new reform. Right.

The cries from across the political spectrum of political brigandry and extortion don't hold: this is politics, what's more, Illinois politics. Meeks' move was not only politically astute, but exactly what politics is all about. The threat to run was based on a serious policy dispute, and Meeks was risking a lot by threatening to run, especially with the leadership of his own party. God knows House Speaker Michael Madigan would have liked to give him the business for even suggesting a run.

Isn't this what we want out of our politicians? Principled stands no matter what the political fallout? As far as I'm concerned, Meeks is doing exactly what his constituents elected him to do. Plus, he's got brass balls.

The question now is, what have we ended up with?

After a series of meetings with Blagojevich, Meeks announced he was scrapping his candidacy, and the governor subsequently issued his reform plan. This fundamentally binds Meeks to Blagojevich's plan, so when the governor tries to move it in the veto session this fall, Meeks will have an obligation to stand behind it.

The plan itself? Well, it relies on the concept of privatizing the Illinois state lottery, either by handing it to a business or holding an initial public offering (IPO). The governor expects this to generate in the neighborhood of $10 billion.

The Blagojevich plan calls for:

• About $4 billion in new school construction, school repairs and expansion, and development of "little schools" within schools, an increase in the basic level of funding schools receive, upgrades of textbooks, a system of merit-based pay for teachers, logistical support for district consolidation, etc.

• About $6 billion will be invested and the return generated would give $650 million a year to schools for the next two decades.

Currently, the lottery already provides for about $650 million a year for schools, although money is commonly siphoned off for other purposes.

The idea of "lottery privatization" has been thrown around for a while as a way to infuse cash into state government for schools. The problem is, schools will still at the end of the day be funded by property taxes, and that will lead to imbalances and homeowners, especially in Chicago and the Cook suburbs, will continue to be smothered by skyrocketing property values. And the areas that need the most attention will still have trouble getting funding.

Meanwhile, suburban school districts that were once every young familys' ambition find themselves short of funding, too. A plan that earmarks "too much" money for inner city schools could threaten the governor's suburban support for the plan.

Conservatives are already moaning about the "throw more money at the schools" solution. You see, for Republicans, spending money on public schools is stupid; you should just sell the schools to their friends who will operate them for profit, but use public money to subsidize this process, thus decimating public education, making their friends rich, and "lowering taxes" (on their friends). Oh, also, break the teachers unions. That'll solve everything, too, because everybody knows how lazy teachers are. You got to admire the chutzpah on these guys.

But it isn't just throwing money at the problem; Blagojevich's plan includes several interesting proposals, including extending the school year, dedicating funding specifically for special ed teachers, building tutoring into the school districts, unifying school districts in order to standardize curriculums (this would ease transitions from elementary to middle school, and middle school to high school), and a real effort to go after school district bureaucrats who sap resources.

This blend of real structural reforms and a serious, dedicated increase in funding is worth the shot: it is certainly better than the "sell it off, kill the unions" mantra we constantly hear from the right.

And if it gets kids in Illinois brand new textbooks and smaller classes, and the only casualty is the public ownership of the lottery, it must be worth it.

And we can thank Senator Meeks, the Senate's Stick Up Kid, for it.

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John Powers / May 24, 2006 7:38 AM

While privativizing the lottery makes perfect sense, throwing money at eduction is certainly not "real reform". Is anyone addressing early retirement? Underfunded pensions? Out of control spending at our school districts? Adding a competitive safety valve to the schools network?

I'll moan that throwing money at a failed system is a terrible idea. The only thing that can improve education is breaking the education monopoly and its system of increasing and organized theft from the general taxpayer to featherbed the system.

Where is the structural reform that Carnahan and Blago are touting? How about allowing some competition in Education?


mike / May 31, 2006 1:20 PM

-great article!

As a teacher myself, I am always a little reserved when new "education" reforms are debated and/or take hold; however, Blagojevich's and Meeks' reforms are sound only if that lottery money is safe guarded against being siphoned. The original intention of the lottery was to assist school funding, but very little lottery money sees the light of day in a textbook or teacher's pension fund. New lottery/education reforms will only work with legal safeguards. On a side note, "schools" within "schools" is a wonderful way to level students' weaknesses against their strengths as well as decrease class size. (CLASS SIZE AND AVAILABLE SUPPORT/RESOURCES ARE THE NUMBER ONE REASONS WHY TEACHERS LEAVE AT-RISK SCHOOLS)

Secondly, the mistake reformers and government officials make is they adhere to the general idea of competition umong teachers and schools instead of a higher degree of professionalism---professional pay, resources, and contigincy solutions for new and developing teachers, especially in at-risk schools. Reform starts with professional training and pay for teachers and resources for students.

Lastly, and sadly, most funding for schools does come from property taxes, insuring that the poor remain uneducated, or poorly so--- (don't you know that the rich and corporate republicans abandoned the public education system 50 years ago)

To truly be a democratic educational system, property tax reform at the highest level needs to take place. Until then, all we can do is watch cities like Chicago for inspiring reform ideas.

John Powers / June 13, 2006 10:57 AM

So Mike,

In a competitive market, wouldn't a higher degree of professionalism devleop organically rather than by state dictate?

Since very few of the state dictates are working now, why not let competition work its magic.



About the Author(s)

Richard F. Carnahan is a true South Side Sox fan who's played a bit part in Chicago politics more than once over the years. Contact him at

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