ILLINOIS SCHOOL BOARD JOURNAL
The politics of education: Erosion of local control
by Jim Nowlan
Jim Nowlan was a member of the Illinois House from 1969-73 and special assistant for education to Governor Jim Thompson in the late 1970s. He is a senior fellow with the University of Illinois Institute of Government and Public Affairs.
The politics of public education in Illinois is primarily about control of the schoolhouse. "Local control" has been the mantra of state and local officials since the state was founded. In fact, control of the schoolhouse is a continuing struggle among the local, state and national governments, as well as among the business community, education unions and even major foundations.
For decades, control of local schools has been eroding, first, to the state government and since the 1970s, to the federal government.
Understanding the present state of education policymaking requires a look at the development of the politics of K-12 education.
In the beginning
Education has been in the minds of policymakers since before our founding as a nation and resulted in early education legislation. The Northwest Ordinance of 1785 set aside the 16th section of every township (that is, one of the 36 square miles in a typical township) for the support of schools. Even today, many schools in the Midwest are named "township" schools.
Until about the 1970s, education had been primarily a state and local function. In the wake of Russia beating the U.S. into space with Sputnik in 1957, the federal government did respond with the National Defense Education Act (NDEA), which provided funding for science and math education. And, in 1965, as part of President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society programs, Congress enacted the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which provided financial assistance to schools for children from low-income families.
Whereas both the NDEA and ESEA acts provided funding support, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1975 (IDEA, originally the Education of All the Handicapped Act) began for the first time to leverage federal funding to also require that local schools change their pedagogical approaches to teaching children. The special education law required "free and appropriate education" and individual education plans (IEPs) for each handicapped child. The federal government authorized 40 percent of the cost of the program but actually appropriates less than 20 percent of total local school district costs.
In 2002, President George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). This was to be a hallmark of his legacy. NCLB requires states to improve performance of students so that by 2013-14, 100 percent of all students are scoring at least "proficient" on required annual state-developed exams. Sanctions are imposed on those failing to make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), and schools failing to reach those targets after five consecutive years are to be restructured and new staff hired.
IDEA and NCLB have fundamentally altered how local schools approach education, even though each act provides only a fraction of the cost of providing the programs. It should be noted that the states do not have to participate in either program, but the "carrot" has always been the promise of the huge funding component. In fact, federal aid to public education in Illinois is less than 10 percent of total revenue, usually hovering around 8 percent.
As one observer put it, "It's as if 10 percent of the money is telling the other 90 percent what to do." This is a classic illustration of the "game" of federalism, in which each level of government (federal, state and local) tries to expand its authority — and get the other levels to pay for it.
State-level organizations such as the Illinois Association of School Boards and the Illinois Education Association leave the federal game to their national counterparts. IASB and IEA have their hands full wrestling with state funding and the several hundred bills each two-year biennium that would affect local school districts. The two political orbs revolve independently, yet both pull heavily on the local school district.
Of course the Big Kahuna in the politics of education in Illinois is, as readers may well know, the Illinois Education Association and its sister organization, the Illinois Federation of Teachers/Chicago Teachers Union (IFT/CTU). But it was not always so.
Until the late 1960s, the IEA was a milquetoast organization of teachers and administrators that never took a position on any legislation. Today the IEA is a political juggernaut that can strike terror into the hearts of lawmakers who regularly oppose the union. Few do.
Jim Reed is director of governmental relations for the IEA. With a warm smile and deep experience in legislative relations, Reed heads a staff of five lobbyists and a political action committee that regularly has $3 million available to contribute to lawmakers and state candidates as it heads into general election campaigns. The union has 130,000 members who each contribute $20 a year from dues to the political action committee.
Money talks in Illinois politics, and contested campaigns are expensive. For example, in 2006, Republican House member (now congressman) Aaron Schock was targeted for extinction by House Speaker Michael Madigan, a Democrat. The IEA poured $70,000 into support of Schock's campaign, one-tenth of his total campaign receipts, in a race that Schock won.
In the 1970s, the IEA contributed $80,000 into the first campaign of Governor Jim Thompson, by far the largest interest group contribution (adjusted for inflation, the amount would represent $300,000 today). Later the Republican chief executive signed collective bargaining legislation for the union.
In 2008, the IEA endorsed 83 House and 33 Senate candidates, representing more than a majority of both houses. All received resources from the IEA such as campaign managers and phone banking, and 90 percent received monetary contributions. At the local level, scores of grassroots IEA teacher political activists are paid small stipends to work locally with legislators and turn out workers for campaigns.
Today the teacher unions (IEA and the IFT/CTU) have combined membership of 240,000 members and their political action committees (PACs) had $7 million available for the 2006 general elections, an amount equal to one-third of all PAC money spent in that year.
The IEA has long linked endorsement and contributions to legislative performance, according to political analyst Kent Redfield. Even legislators who are confident they could beat an election challenge from the IEA would just as soon avoid the increased time, effort and money needed to do so. So whenever a legislator can give the IEA a vote in committee or on the floor, he or she generally tries to accommodate the union.
Each of the five IEA lobbyists is assigned a mix of state legislators and U.S. congressmen. The lobbyists are responsible for communicating with their assigned lawmakers and seeing that strong IEA supporters among them are re-elected.
Of the 200 or so bills introduced each session that are specifically on school matters, the IEA generally — but not always — gets what it wants. The IEA beats back with apparent ease efforts to reduce instructional mandates. And, in doing so, the union has progressively restricted the authority of local school boards.
In 1987, for instance, the IEA was successful in extending seniority protection to all non-teaching personnel, including bus drivers, food service workers, aides and secretaries. Further, teachers are almost never successfully fired for incompetence.
In an award-winning investigative series, Scott Reeder of the Small Newspaper Group found that between 1985-2005, on average only two teachers a year — out of 95,500 tenured teachers — were fired for incompetence. The average cost in legal fees to school boards for each of the firings came to $219,000. Part of the reason for the small number of firings for incompetence is credited to the unions' effectiveness at bargaining for detailed, protective elements in the dismissal process.
What the unions cannot win in local bargaining, they try to change by state statute. For example, in the 2009 session of the General Assembly, the IEA is promoting an increase in the number of accumulated sick leave days for non-certified staff to 240, and a provision to require school districts to bank accumulated sick leave days for retirement purposes.
Management fights back
In 1994, feeling their lobbying efforts fragmented, the other major statewide education associations banded together into the Illinois Statewide School Management Alliance (school boards, superintendents, principals and business officers). IASB has three lobbyists in veterans Ben Schwarm and Deanna Sullivan and relative newcomer Susan Hilton. They are complemented out of IASB's Lombard office by schools advocate Cynthia Woods.
Each of the other associations in the Alliance also has lobbyists: Diane Hendren, Illinois Association of School Administrators; Calvin Jackson, Illinois Association of School Business Officials; and DeJuan Kea, Illinois Principals Association. The Alliance lobbyists meet weekly during the legislative session to review bills and make assignments. Schwarm says they read at least the synopsis of every bill introduced into the General Assembly, and they find that 30 percent of the 2,500-3,000 bills introduced each year at least touch on education.
Jim Broadway, a reporter who has covered education issues for years, calls creation of the Alliance a smart move, which has given the associations increased influence in the policymaking process. "When both the Alliance and the unions put in witness slips for or against a bill, they are very powerful," Broadway says.
"The Alliance has made huge inroads," adds IASB's Sullivan, noting that it is standard operating procedure now for education committees to ask: "Where is the Alliance on this bill?"
The Alliance and the teacher unions are together on about 60 percent of bills, say Schwarm and Sullivan. But when it comes to a real fight between unions and the Alliance, observers agree, the unions usually win, "because they have the big PACs." Yet Sullivan makes the point that Alliance efforts are successful more often than not in making union bills "less egregious."
During the 2008 spring legislative session, for example, the Alliance stopped 22 bills from being enacted, including a bill to reduce the number of probationary years before certain teachers acquire tenure. In addition, the Alliance successfully amended 16 bills to make them less burdensome for school districts, like the bill that would have placed school bus contracts under the Illinois Procurement Act, which was amended to make appropriate modifications to the current bidding process.
"Every legislator believes he or she knows how to run our schools better than the local educators," says Broadway. As a result, the Alliance lobbyists of necessity play defense more often than not. And with hundreds of bills a year that could affect education, defending against bad bills takes most of the Alliance team's time.
In more recent years, business leaders across the country, including those in Illinois, became more involved in "school improvement." Corporate chief executives especially have as much potential to cause fundamental change in education as any education group, including school leaders and elected officials. When aroused, CEOs can raise the necessary funds to generate pressure for change.
Broadway saw strong business influence in education policymaking in the 1990s, especially from the Illinois Manufacturing Association (IMA), Illinois Business Roundtable and the Illinois State Chamber of Commerce.
"For three to four years, Blouke Carus (head of the IMA education committee) owned education in Illinois," Broadway declares. "He brought in the German model. And in 1993-94, Jeff Mays (Roundtable) and Robb Carr (IMA) basically ran the Senate education committee."
Broadway sees almost a conspiracy within the business community nationally and in Illinois to shift blame for a weak industrial economy to education.
"You don't hear the anti-education rhetoric at the community level," Broadway observes. "People have been fed this [line] that everything is going down the toilet (in education), so they continue to like their own school but find education in terrible shape."
Broadway considers the federal No Child Left Behind Act to be the latest, and most far-reaching, of the reflections of the neo-conservative business community education efforts.
With Democrats now in control of both chambers and the governorship, business interests have less influence. But other, generally specialized, groups continue to influence their piece of the puzzle within the state legislative process.
"Just about every line item in the education budget has its own advocacy group," IASB's Schwarm notes. He cites as examples special education, physical education, rural schools and FAIRCOM (schools and local governments located in property-value rich nuclear power plant districts).
Then again, any group that can benefit a special constituency without hurting others can be powerful, as elected officials like to do things for people but dislike doing things to people.
Geographic regions also have specialized lobby groups. In the Chicago suburbs, Education Research and Development (EDRED) represents more than 100 districts north of Chicago while South Council of Public Education (SCOPE) represents south Cook and Will counties and Local Education Network of DuPage (LEND) advocates for regional interests. The Large Unit District Association (LUDA) does the same for its members, and more recently a High School District Association has formed.
Lobbyists are also relied on to provide credible information on education and finance that is important to policymakers. Other sources include the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability and the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club, both Chicago-based organizations. The groups do not lobby, but their reports are often quoted in legislative debate.
A+ Illinois is a statewide coalition of unions, the Illinois Farm Bureau, social service groups and local schools that promotes an increase in the income tax for education, and, as a result, the group has also been influential in early childhood education policy. A new foundation-supported group called Advance Illinois is chaired by former governor Jim Edgar and banker William Daley, brother of Chicago's Mayor Richard M. Daley to support school-based reforms.
While the Illinois State Board of Education once operated as an independent agency to recommend budgets for education and advocate for other legislative change, under ex-Governor Rod Blagojevich, the state board has become basically a mouthpiece for the governor's office. Governors typically worry about education budgets and review all education bills at the veto stage, but in Illinois the chief executives have not made education their legacy issue, although Blagojevich did push hard for increased money for education.
Inside the state legislature, Senator James Meeks (D-Chicago) chairs his chamber's education committee and has devoted himself to school funding reform. He has led the charge for a thus far unsuccessful effort to increase the income tax, reduce property taxes and provide more money for education. In the House, GOP representative and also school superintendent Roger Eddy of southern Illinois is known for his deep, in-the-trenches knowledge of educational issues and is considered a force in education policy as a result.
Finally, just as business has tried to shape education policy at the national and state levels, so have charitable foundations such as the immense Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has focused on, among other reforms, creating small high schools. As one national observer notes: "With their money, the Gates Foundation can set the debate over school reform." The Gates Foundation is, for example, a major funding source for the new Advance Illinois reform group.
Local wealth leads to inequities
The really big issue in the legislature, year after year, is the budget. Education interests have generally favored increasing state revenues for schools and have fought efforts to reduce the base of the local property tax through increased homestead and other exemptions from the tax, but education lobbies have been frustrated on both counts.
"Legislators say they're for school funding solutions," says a union lobbyist, "but they don't push."
In 1997, the state board of education created the Education Funding Advisory Board (EFAB) of school experts for the purpose of establishing an objective level of per pupil funding that would be adequate to provide a minimally acceptable education. The idea was that the "adequacy level" would become the foundation level, which would still not eliminate the big disparities between the poorer and the richest districts.
In recent years, however, state aid has annually fallen short of the recommended adequacy level. In April 2005, EFAB set the adequacy level at $6,405, yet the actual amount funded by the state provided a foundation level of $5,334. Adjusting for inflation, the adequacy level would have risen to $6,974 for 2008, while the actual amount approved in the 2008 budget was $5,734.
While EFAB recommended levels have not generally been achieved by the governor and legislature, the group's work provided a highly visible annual benchmark for elected officials to consider. Unfortunately, EFAB has not met since 2005 because Blagojevich refused to fill vacancies on the EFAB panel.
Speaking at a meeting of poor school districts several years ago, former University of Illinois education professor James Ward declared, "If you folks spent a couple of days in a top flight school in DuPage or Lake counties and saw what they had that you don't, there would be a revolution."
Yet no revolution occurred between the 1980s and the present for two basic reasons:
First, the fragmented education community could not agree on a course of action. The property tax divides property-rich districts from those without property wealth. The better-off districts want to protect their tax base and generally worry that a "tax swap" of more income taxation for property tax relief might result in the former but not the latter. This creates uneasiness between the two sets of districts, which makes it difficult for their statewide management and labor education associations to formulate unified positions on tax proposals. This, in turn, makes the advocacy of their lobbyists somewhat muted.
Second, huge infusions of state funding for local schools would be required to reduce the disparities significantly. The option of taking property tax money away from rich districts and giving it to poor districts is politically unacceptable, so that is not on the table.
State lawmakers have appeared paralyzed by the magnitude of the action needed to reduce the variance. A shift in primary reliance for funding schools from the local property tax to the state income tax would alone require a major statewide tax increase of an additional 2 or 3 percent to the present 3 percent income tax rate.
In 1997, Governor Jim Edgar backed an increase in the income tax for support of local schools. The bill passed the House but was blocked from coming to a vote in the state Senate by its president, James (Pate) Philip, who felt the legislation would be bad for his suburban DuPage County voters. And this is true in the sense that in any combination of income tax increase and property tax reduction, suburban residents would generally end up paying more in additional taxes than would Downstate and Chicago residents.
More recently, A+ Illinois has generally backed an increase in the state income tax to reduce funding inequities, coupled with a reduction in property taxes. House Bill 750 proposed just such a tax restructuring, and the bill became a vehicle in the 2005 and 2007 legislative sessions for proponents of significant increased state school funding, but the legislation never passed. In 2008, Senate Bill 2288 fulfilled the same objective as HB750, yet it also languished in the legislature, primarily because of a promised veto by then-Governor Blagojevich.
In 2008, the Chicago Urban League and the high-profile Chicago law firm of Jenner & Block filed another lawsuit aimed at overthrowing the long-standing school finance variances between rich and poor districts. The suit contends that the civil rights of minority groups are being violated because these groups tend to be in districts that receive less in total school funding than do the generally white, more affluent school districts.
Clearly, the school finance equity issue is the most vexing annual challenge for all of education in Illinois. Other major issues that confront education every year in the legislature include special education funding, pensions and, as one observer puts it, "general interference" with local schools, or mandates.
A 2008 report by the Illinois State Board of Education showed that local school districts have to fill a $1 billion gap in annual special education funding — beyond their special education tax levy — because of inadequate federal and state funding to meet the special ed mandate. The federal stimulus package enacted in February may fill part of that gap, but for how long?
Pension bills also seem to bedevil education lobbyists just about every year. Eighty-six bills have already been introduced this biennium that affect pensions in some way. Often the bills seek to add benefits, as in House Bill 1148, which allows a member of the Downstate Teachers' Retirement System to establish optional credit for up to two years of service in a private school. Alone, this bill might not add much to the liabilities of the retirement system, yet multiply it by many other similar bills and the burden becomes significant.
Mandates by the legislature on local school districts represent a continuing battle for Alliance lobbyists. The School Code is replete with 105 mandates about what the schools must do.
For example, instruction must be provided in patriotism, honesty and kindness, consumer education, the Holocaust, prevention of steroid abuse and the avoidance of abduction. The state mandates that driver training be made available to both public and nearby nonpublic students and, for drivers' education, that precisely "30 clock-hours of classroom instruction and six clock-hours of behind the wheel instruction" are provided, including instruction on how the Litter Control Act pertains to auto use.
In the 1990s, a State Mandates Act called for state reimbursement for state-impose mandates. But almost every mandate bill carries a proviso that the bill is exempt from such reimbursement provisions, so the original act has become toothless. The Alliance lobbyists counted 38 mandates that were enacted in 2007-08 alone adding to the local financial burden to pick up the state-imposed tab.
What lies ahead?
The big issues of today will be with us into the future. The funding issue will become even more challenging because the collision among health care, pensions and education will finally occur. These are the three state spending categories that have continued to grow at rates generally greater than inflation over the past two decades, and now the state has lost the fiscal capacity to continue to support growth in all three categories.
"This year is the test," IASB's Sullivan declares. "There is no real money to cut unless you cut in these three areas."
Meanwhile, local control has eroded because of aggressive policymaking at both the federal and state levels. Representative Eddy, himself a superintendent, feels that local authority is still very important to school management but that local control is "much less" than when he began in education 28 years ago.
Looking ahead at the national level, reporter Jim Broadway feels the new Congress may amend the No Child Left Behind Act to reduce national accountability and sanctions, and place more of the responsibility for accountability at the local level. But with the current focus on the economy, legislators say it could be next year before there is any action on NCLB.
At the state level, Alliance lobbyists will continue largely to play defense. And because of unrelenting corruption issues and Blagojovich's removal from office, the possibility, not likelihood, of stringent campaign contribution limits on organizations like the teachers' unions could change the dynamic of state policymaking to the benefit of the lesser-funded groups like the Illinois Statewide School Management Alliance.
Without a crystal ball, no one may be able to adequately and accurately predict what the future will hold for public education in Illinois. But based on its history, any number of people will continue to push to retain local control.
Notable points in Illinois history
In the newly established state of Illinois (1818), Governor Edward Coles called for taxation to support local schools. In the state senate that year, Senator Joseph Duncan (later governor) moved that the Committee on Seminary Lands be renamed to add "and Public Education." The following year, the state required a free public school in each county and state aid was also established.
The public reaction was so severely negative, however, that the main provisions of the law were repealed in the following session of the legislature. Not until 1855 did the General Assembly levy a state property tax for education, which local authorities could supplement.
In 1927 the General Assembly enacted the Strayer-Haig "equalization" formula, which was designed by two Columbia University professors and provided more state aid to poorer districts than to wealthier ones. This is the base on which the present Illinois school aid foundation formula has been shaped.
In 1942, Illinois had 12,000 elementary school districts, most a single one-room school. Some counties had more school board members than teachers. Persistent efforts by groups including the Illinois Farm Bureau cut the number of districts in half by 1948 and to 2,000 in the 1950s. Today there are 868 districts, still more than in most states.
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