Solutions to improve education vary candidate by candidate
By John Chase and Rick Pearson
Republicans and Democrats running for governor all agree more needs to be done to improve education in Illinois, but they have sharp disagreements about the best way to achieve those successes.
For Republican Judy Baar Topinka, Illinois can't make significant improvements to public education without first addressing a budget she says is imbalanced, begin paying down the state's growing pension obligation, and cutting burgeoning health-care expenses.
But the incumbent, Democrat Rod Blagojevich, says more can be done now to increase the state's contributions to school districts across the state, particularly those in poorer communities.
The answers from the two--as well as from the other Democratic and three other major Republican candidates seeking nominations March 21 for governor--came in response to the second Tribune questionnaire on issues confronting the state.
Nearly every candidate agreed that the state's current funding system for education is too reliant on property taxes. But none was willing to embrace a tax swap that would probably bring more equity to education funding statewide by reducing property taxes while increasing state taxes.
Republican Ron Gidwitz, a businessman from Chicago and former head of the State Board of Education, acknowledged that the idea should be examined, as did Democrat Edwin Eisendrath, who is currently a vice president at Kendall College.
"I'll put the entire revenue system on the table," said Eisendrath, the governor's sole opponent in the Democratic primary.
Republican Bill Brady, a state senator from Bloomington, has a proposal to dedicate half of all natural revenue growth for education, which he estimates would be about $1 billion over four years. Aurora businessman Jim Oberweis said school vouchers allowing taxpayer dollars to help pay for private school tuition is the answer.
"Parents deserve to have a choice in the marketplace among a full range of public and private options," Oberweis said.
Both Blagojevich and Topinka said the key to improving education is increasing state funding to boost the minimum amount of money spent on each student in the state, which is known as the foundation level.
"We have raised the foundation level by $600 per student. Previous administrations averaged much less," Blagojevich said.
Topinka, the state's three-term treasurer, argues that though Blagojevich has increased the foundation level, he hasn't increased it as much as he promised.
"Four years ago, candidate Rod Blagojevich promised to raise the foundation level $250 a year or $1,000 over his four-year term," she said.
Topinka and Blagojevich also have a significant disagreement over what the state's response should be to claims by the Chicago Public Schools that it is facing one of the worst fiscal crises in recent memory.
Blagojevich has promised $100 million in state aid to help, but Topinka said making the promise is a "knee-jerk response." Instead, she said that if she's elected, the Chicago schools will have to make their case before getting a dime of new money.
Oberweis said the answer is to allow "children and parents escape from failing schools" through vouchers, while Gidwitz said the answer to the Chicago schools' problems is for the state to adopt a "zero-based" strategy that starts the state's spending process from scratch each year. That move would free up more money for schools statewide, he said.
"Chicago is not alone in suffering from a lack of resources," Gidwitz said.
"More than 80 percent of the school districts in the state are operating at a deficit."
Eisendrath said teacher training needs to be improved, as does school management, with which Brady agreed.
"I will use the savings from eliminating bureaucracy to incrementally increase classroom spending," Brady said.
Brady was the only candidate who said that if elected, he would dismantle the State Board of Education and restructure it into a department that reports directly to the governor. Most of the others said they would change the board's makeup with more members "independent" of the governor's office.
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