Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Major education proposal

The governor announced a new, $6-billion education plan that could be paid for by selling or leasing the Illinois Lottery. The $10 billion in Lottery revenue could allow $4 billion for extra school spending over the next four years. By the governor's estimate, the remaining $6 billion could be saved and invested, earning interest that would ensure the state maintained its current contribution to education, about $650 million a year until 2025. About $1 billion would be invested in the first year. Randy Dunn, state superintendent, categorized the spending:

What it would do
1. School funding
- Increase the foundation level, the minimum amount schools spend on each student. The level for fiscal year 2007 that starts July 1 is $5,364, about $1,000 short of the amount recommended by the state’s Education Funding Advisory Board. Dunn said the new influx of cash could ensure, roughly, another $200 per student, still below the $6,405 recommendation.
- Increase special education funding and fully fund the mandated categoricals, which are targeted programs for specific groups of students

2. Schools’ physical structure
- Allot $1.5 billion for school construction projects, starting with projects on the five-year waiting list. Any money left over could relieve fast-growing districts or really outdated schools.
- Create “identity schools” that focus for example on arts, technology or agriculture
- Help school districts consolidate for efficiency and continuity in curriculum (it would give incentives to help school districts lower property taxes and form unit districts, and it would give “seed money” to districts so they don’t have to wait a year for state aid). Dunn said consolidating could be an alternative to the state taking over a struggling district.

3. Teacher quality
- Use performance-based pay for teachers who show progress in their students’ achievement (it could go beyond student test scores, Dunn said)
- Expand mentoring programs for teachers and administrators
- Give incentives for colleges that produce teachers

4. Learning materials
- Replace old textbooks, starting with the neediest schools
- Upgrade technology (including high-speed Internet access)
- Increase funding for school libraries
- Revive efforts to offer vocational education

5. Learning time
- Dedicate an additional $60 million for preschool and expanding all-day kindergarten
- Extend the school year for underperforming districts, allowing them to go from the current 180-day year to a 210-day year (intended to help prevent at-risk students from failing).
- Encourage parental involvement and tutoring programs

It would also create a long-term planning council.

What they said
Gov. Rod Blagojevich, a Chicago Democrat, said this plan would reverse 26 years of underfunding of schools and misplaced priorities. He called the plan historic, ambitious and a fundamental change in the way we fund our schools.

Senate President Emil Jones, another Chicago Democrat, supported the program and said Sen. Kimberly Lightford will hold public hearings to work out the details throughout the summer.

Sen. James Meeks is the Chicago Independent who tabled his idea to run for governor if Blagojevich didn’t come out with more education funding. He said he liked this plan because it increased accountability. He added that when he looked the governor straight in the eye and asked him whether all parts of the plan will unfold, Blagojevich told him, “I can’t do ‘em if I’m not re-elected.” Meeks said he got the hint and will ensure Blagojevich gets reelected so the “bold and ambitious plans” can win legislative approval.

Superintendent Dunn said, “The governor really has been the architect of this, based upon the (research) from us.” Regarding the foundation level, Dunn said this plan would do more than what the Education Funding Advisory Board wanted. He said rather than dumping money into general state aid, this approach would put money into more specific uses that have shown to improve student achievement. As far as what would happen after the first four years, Dunn said, “We can debate about the word 'permanent,' but things are only permanent as a given election cycle. And you don't know where things will go.” He added, “We've got to start making progress on these initiatives.” If the plan fails legislative approval? “We're going to see more of the same,” he said, and there’s “no real impetus” for change.

What’s next
There is no set plan for many of the proposals. They will have to be discussed in public hearings throughout the summer before being introduced as legislation in the fall veto session, scheduled to start November 14 (after elections).

You can listen here.
You can download a PowerPoint presentation here.

Expect some different perspectives in the following days.

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