Opponents call it the “blank check amendment.” Proponents say the proposed amendment to Section 1 of Article X of the Illinois Constitution–a change generally known as the Education Amendment–will make school funding fairer, by forcing the state to pick up at least 51 percent of the tab instead of making local property owners foot virtually the entire bill. They claim it will improve the quality of education in Illinois, where funding for education, they say, has lagged badly behind other states’. Opponents say the amendment will drastically raise state income taxes while providing for no property tax relief, and will throw matters that are properly in the purview of the General Assembly into the courts. And they say there’s a lot of evidence that, popular mythology notwithstanding, there is no particular correlation between spending money on schools and educational achievement.

“This is probably the most important issue in the last 20 years on a ballot,” says the amendment’s chief sponsor, outgoing state senator Arthur Berman. “It will determine the future of most of the children in Illinois for the next generation.”

“This is a wholesale scam, just the way the lottery was,” counters Senator Judy Baar Topinka. “It’s just a way to raise taxes. On paper, it’s God, motherhood, and country, and who can be against those? The amendment is not what they say it is. You can dress a pig any way you want to and it’s still a pig. No amount of silks and satins can disguise the fact that this is still a pig of an amendment.”

Article X of the Illinois Constitution now reads: “Section 1. Goal–Free Schools. A fundamental goal of the People of the State is the educational development of all persons to the limits of their capacities.

“The State shall provide for an efficient system of high quality public education institutions and services. Education in public schools through the secondary level shall be free. There may be such other free education as the General Assembly provides by law.

“The State has the primary responsibility for financing the system of public education.”

The proposed amendment makes some significant changes: “A fundamental right of the People of the State is the educational development of all persons to the limits of their capacities.

“It is the paramount duty of the State to provide for a thorough and efficient system of high quality public education institutions and services and to guarantee equality of educational opportunity as a fundamental right of each citizen. Education in public schools through the secondary level shall be free. The State has the preponderant financial responsibility for financing the system of public education.

“There may be such other free education as the General Assembly provides by law.”

“This amendment does three things,” says Arthur Berman, a man known as either an advocate of education or a tool of the teachers’ unions, depending upon who’s speaking. He and Senator John Maitland are the parents of the amendment. “It sets education as a, quote, fundamental right, unquote. It makes education the ‘paramount’ responsibility of the state. And it requires the state to be the ‘preponderant’ financing source. When approved, this will help the 81 percent of Illinois schoolchildren that attend schools that do not have adequate resources because they do not have a high property tax base. This will shift school funding from the unfair property tax to the much fairer state income tax.”

This is obviously going to cost a lot of money; how much will the income tax have to be raised? “That depends on the General Assembly. There may have to be an income tax increase, but the amount of any increase will really depend on what the General Assembly wants to do in other areas of expenditure. Instead of last, this will make education the first [priority], properly funded.” The amount of the tax increase, he says, will depend on how badly the legislature wants to fund other things.

Berman calls charges that the Education Amendment is simply one more gimmick to take money from the suburbs and redistribute it to the rest of the state “absolutely false.” He also denies that it would have any negative effect on business in the state. “Anything that shifts the cost of education away from property taxes is fairer than what we have now.”

Judy Baar Topinka, Republican from North Riverside, is a moderate who generally takes a commonsense approach to legislative matters. She thinks the Education Amendment is a rotten idea, for a lot of reasons. For one, the language is vague, so the amendment is destined to land in the courts–meaning that the courts will end up doing the legislature’s job. “This is bad precedent,” she notes. For another, she says, the amendment has never had any kind of public hearing–the usual procedure for so far-reaching a change. “All efforts to amend the amendment to show its fiscal impact were killed” in the Illinois House, she complains; the fact that a large tax increase will be needed is not reflected in the amendment itself.

She objects to the use of the words “preponderant financial responsibility”: “This means that all other issues and priorities facing the state are no longer on the front burner. Everything else goes on the side in terms of funding. Do we really want to do that?” And if the amendment, which makes education the first priority in state spending, passes without an income tax increase, she warns, spending for other departments and services–public health, AIDS, mental health, senior services, employment, and the environment, to name a few–will have to be severely pruned.

Topinka claims that the amendment’s supporters have given the erroneous impression that it would transfer school funding from property taxes to the income tax. “This is not the case. There is nothing in this amendment to end, abate, or reform the property tax situation now facing northern Illinois and its already overstrapped property owners. This amendment would provide no property tax relief at all.” Suburban residents would still pay horrendous property taxes–while getting clobbered by income tax increases that wouldn’t do anything for their school districts. “The suburban schools will wind up supporting the whole state education system. Unfair.” And higher taxes, she argues, will just drive more businesses out of a state that has already seen too much of its industry bug out in recent years.

Most importantly, she states, “There’s no need for this amendment. The legislature has all the authority it needs to fund education right now. This is a misuse of the state constitution; it’s just a terrible way of doing business. It’s not what we design constitutions for. Constitutions are generic political plans–and legislatures fill in the blanks.

“If this goes through, we’re going to have to start piling amendments on top of each other. If you want to make health care a priority, you’re going to have to have another amendment. If you want to make something else a priority, you’ll need an amendment for that. The effect is to turn the Constitution into the Revised Statutes. And that’s not what it’s for.”

From the Heritage Foundation’s Business/Education Insider: “Spending Per Pupil and National Testing: More Money Does Not Mean Better Scores. . . . Many states with consistently high test scores (Iowa, North and South Dakota, and Missouri) have below-average per pupil spending. In contrast, the highest spending states have among the lowest test scores. For example, the District of Columbia, which ranked 3rd in spending, ranked 50th on SAT scores.

“Part of the problem according to several studies is that much of the money spent on education never makes it to the classroom. In Virginia, for example, 52 cents of every education dollar goes to overhead, administration, and other non-instructional expenses. Similarly, in Georgia, over half of all revenue goes to non-instructional expenses–expenses that have increased by 264 percent since 1980.”

According to this study, Illinois is 18th among the states in spending per pupil, at $4,915; it’s a bit above the U.S. average of $4,761. Illinois is ranked 10th in terms of SAT scores and 22nd in NAEP (National Assessment of Education Progress) scores. Of the 17 states that plunked down more for education, only Wisconsin (at $5,475 per pupil) did better in both scoring departments: seventh for SATs, sixth for NAEPs.

The other top ten scorers for SATs were, in order, Iowa ($4,344), North Dakota ($4,294), South Dakota ($3,704), Kansas ($4,491), Utah (last in the nation at $2,629 per student), Nebraska ($4,385), Minnesota ($4,865, tied with Wisconsin for seventh place), and Tennessee ($3,707).

But statistics vary according to who’s compiling them. According to a Census Bureau study, Illinois did even better in terms of spending–seventh. (This figure includes federal, state, and local moneys.) The higher-spending states did not do better in terms of SAT scores.

“We’ve been throwing money at the problem for 40 years. In the United States we have quadrupled our investment in education in the last 40 years–and that’s after inflation,” says Tom Hetland. “The proponents of the Education Amendment say our schools are underfunded, and that’s why they’re not doing well. But I’m not convinced that they are underfunded.”

Hetland is executive director of the Center for Rebuilding America’s Schools, a project of the free-market Heartland Institute. He’s unconvinced about a lot of things that the amendment’s proponents claim. “Forty years ago, for every 1,000 schoolchildren, there were 52 staff people, on average. Now, for every 1,000, there are 109 staff. In 1950 there was one staff person for every 19 kids–and now it’s one for every 9 kids. We just continue to create jobs with this money. Look at teacher salaries–they’re OK, but they’re not rolling in money. [School districts] have hired a lot more people, they’re spending a lot of money at the top. They’re not using it to teach kids. This is a road we’ve been down before–and it hasn’t gotten us anywhere.”

Hetland says it’s a myth that the United States doesn’t spend much money on education; it may be a lower percentage of gross national product than other nations expend, but our GNP is one of the largest in the world. “It seems relatively small, but we’ve spent more money per person than any other country in the world, except maybe Switzerland. And the results? We’re at the bottom” in academic achievement.

He notes that “you can make statistics say what you want,” and says that Illinois spends a great deal more on education than proponents of the Education Amendment claim–it’s just that a large proportion is coming from local taxes.

In a lawsuit it filed in 1990 to force equity in school funding, a coalition of public school officials used the neighboring Illinois school districts of Byron and Mount Morris as “obvious” examples of “the direct effects of the differences in local wealth on educational services.” Byron has a Commonwealth Edison nuclear power plant that in 1990-91 had an assessed valuation of $545,927,180, and the town has a “local wealth per pupil” of $461,463. Mount Morris’s wealth per pupil at the same time was a niggardly $41,852. Byron, with low property taxes, spent $10,085 per student, and offered a host of nifty courses that Mount Morris, at $3,483, could not match. “The students at Mount Morris have been their poster kids,” says Hetland. “But if you check the ACT scores for the two districts, Mount Morris is performing better than Byron. I don’t know what Byron’s kids are learning for their extra $6,500 per student.”

In fact, he says, there are three determining factors for academic success, based on a study by the Brookings Institution: family background, the student’s native ability, and the way the school is organized. “It says nothing about spending money,” Hetland notes. “You can spend $20,000 per kid in Chicago, and it won’t change family background.”

The Brookings Institution is known for its leftish views, he observes, “and it made a splash that a liberal group would release something advocating school choice. When you get the [conservative] Heritage Institute and the Brookings Institution to agree, the argument on substance is over.”

“We have a wide range of spending [on education] in this state–which is related to the wide range of property values,” says Fred Hess. Hess is executive director of the Chicago Panel on Public School Policy and Finance, and a booster of the amendment. “We have both an equity and an adequacy problem in the state–but the state is charged to provide opportunities for all children living here.”

Why is the amendment the way to do that? “We’ve been trying to add equity for years in Illinois, and the General Assembly has generally ignored the effort. The education article in the Illinois Constitution is toothless. It’s hortatory. It exhorts the state to achieve certain goals, but has no authority to make sure those goals are achieved.”

Isn’t this just a soak-the-affluent scheme? “The question is, who is responsible for educating the children of Illinois? The answer is, the people of Illinois. Who should bear the cost of social services? Wealthier people or poor people? It is equitable and fair for those of us who have more funds to pay more than people with less funds. The objections to extra taxation are kind of the rich crying for protectionism.” Hess dismisses the fear of lawsuits over the language of the amendment as “scare tactics,” and he says, “You have to ask yourself about the morality of the business groups that would stoop to such tactics.”

“Spending matters to the extent that it improves the quality of teachers or the number of teachers,” says William Sander, professor of economics at DePaul University. “But, in aggregation, [the correlation is] pretty weak.”

In a recent study, Sander found that “(1) an increase in average teacher’s salary increases ACT scores and the percentage college-bound and (2) an increase in the pupil- teacher ratio significantly reduces the graduation rate and the percentage planning to attend college . . . ”

Sander found that between 1960 and 1989, per-pupil expenditures in the country as a whole increased by 186 percent; in Illinois, that figure was 146 percent. In 1989, Illinois was just a hair above the national average on spending: $4,513, as opposed to $4,509.

“The most important issue is the relationship between expenditures and the quantity and quality of teachers. . . . Higher salaries have to be more closely linked to productivity in the classroom. Higher salaries are not justified otherwise.”

Before there was an Education Amendment, there was the lawsuit brought by the Committee for Educational Rights, a coalition composed largely of downstate school superintendents, but with poorer suburban districts and that eternal handout-seeker, the City of Chicago School District #299, County of Cook, thrown in. The list of plaintiffs covers almost two full pages, full of names like the Board of Education of Earlville Community Unit School District #9, Counties of LaSalle, Lee and De Kalb, and the Board of Education of Pearl City Community Unit School District #200, Counties of Stephenson, Carroll and Jo Daviess. The defendants are the governor, the Illinois State Board of Education, and the state superintendent of education. The suit seeks to force the state to ensure that a certain minimal level of funding is guaranteed to poorer districts.

“The lawsuit’s principal thrust is that differences in property wealth cannot cause differences in educational services,” says a source who is sympathetic to the plaintiffs. “It grew out of a movement that began in the late 50s and early 60s, when there began to be a lot of dissatisfaction with the schools; after Sputnik, they were seen as not performing very well.”

The first approach taken, this source continues, was to try to address educational funding at the federal level, as a “fundamental right,” like voting. The effort failed in the courts; the Constitution says nothing about education. But 49 of 50 state constitutions have educational provisions–and so lawsuits to make states ante up have been filed in about two-thirds of them, with the results “pretty evenly split.”

The Illinois suit was filed in November of 1990, “and went along the long and acrimonious and incredibly sluggish pathway through the courts.” It was dismissed last spring; the plaintiffs are appealing. They “realized that only one decision is going to matter, and that’s the Illinois Supreme Court’s. The lawsuit is still alive. But the Education Amendment is complicating the picture.”

While the suit was being argued in court last winter, “Berman and Maitland called some of our colleagues and said, ‘Why don’t we have a constitutional amendment?’ They drafted it in two conference calls, and got it through the house–and the first we knew about it was when we read about it in the paper. And by then it was on the ballot.

“From our point of view, our concern is to create a degree of distance between the lawsuit and the amendment. If it’s defeated, the state’s stand will be, ‘Hey, the people just voted on this stuff! They had it in front of them, and they voted against it!’ But the amendment deals with entirely different problems, and part of what we’re trying to work through is figuring out what the amendment means.”

This source objects strongly to the wording of the amendment. “The draftsmen, when confronted with obvious problems [in the wording], said, ‘We didn’t mean that!’ The amendment says that education is a right of each citizen. When I saw that, I just blew up–do you mean to discriminate against legal aliens?’ All constitutional rights apply to all legal residents with the exception of voting and the right to bear arms, which are limited to citizens. I can just see some group downstate that’s afraid of immigrants, working to keep out aliens. And [the draftsmen] said, ‘We didn’t mean that.’

“The amendment says that the state has to educate ‘all persons to the limits of their capacities.’ Well, if you take handicapped kids, you can spend $10,000 or $15,000 a year, and you can get them up to 50 percent of their capacity. But it could cost $200,000 to get them from 80 to 100 percent of capacity. And gifted kids–how much will it take to get them to the limits of their capacities? Are we going to have to pay for special summer schools for the gifted? If it’s a fundamental right, people can keep on suing until they get educated to the limits of their capacities. And the draftsmen said, ‘We didn’t mean that.’ I asked them, ‘Then why say it?’ ‘We just didn’t mean it.'”

This source says he’s unimpressed by Topinka’s arguments of raised taxes and no accountability–“I’ve been working with these school superintendents, and I’m impressed by them; they’ll put the money to good use”–but he’s worried by the provision calling for equal educational opportunity. “One of the responses you could have to this would be a brutal leveling down. Or you could level up. Or it could be like Animal Farm–some are more equal than others.

“Science facilities are a part of educational opportunity. New Trier High School has a truly spectacular science lab. Does every high school in Chicago have to have that science lab? Or do you just take it away from New Trier? What about all those tiny schools downstate–do those schools have to have that lab? You can argue that sports facilities are a part of educational opportunity. Can you duplicate New Trier’s Olympic-size pool, or are you just going to take it away? Are you going to try to duplicate that library, those computers, all over the state? How are you going to achieve real equality of educational opportunity?

“If you level up, it will cost a fortune. If you level down–well, you don’t have to do a lot in terms of money. If you make educational funding a right, if you make equal opportunity a right, if it’s interpreted that every kid has the right to be educated to the limits of his capacity, God knows what it will cost.” He notes that there is an assumption in discussions of the amendment that $4,000 per child per year is the cost of a reasonable education. “That’s an incorrect assumption.” It could go far above that–or it could go below it.

George Alan Karnes Wallis Hickrod (he usually answers to G. Alan Hickrod, but has signed several of his papers with his impressively full-bore name) is director of Illinois State University’s Center for the Study of Educational Finance; he has been involved with both the lawsuit and the amendment. He is the house intellectual and chief academic proponent for the Education Amendment; he’s smooth, ready with answers, knows how to stroke a reporter (“These are very good questions,” “You have a very difficult job”), and how to indicate with just the right touch of asperity the queries he thinks are foolish.

“There’s a lot of overlap” between the lawsuit and the amendment, he says. “They’re both intended to put pressure on the legislature to move on reform legislation.”

He brushes aside the questions of language raised by critics of the amendment. “Constitutions are broad statements of principle; they rely on statutes to flesh them out. They also rely on the supreme court [for interpretation]. The amendment basically establishes education as a fundamental right. Once it’s established as a fundamental right, it will trigger a whole series of court actions–and I think that’s good.

“All the rest of our constitutional rights are dependent on adequate education–the right to vote, the right to free speech, the right to a free press. If you don’t have the right to education, all the rest of those rights are useless, meaningless. You have the form, but no substance. That message is sometimes lost in all the material on how much this will cost.”

And how much will it cost? Although the arguments in favor of the amendment in the brochure produced by the secretary of state’s office state flatly that “the Education Amendment will not increase your state taxes,” I was unable to find any fans of the amendment who would second that idea. Most estimates put the price tag in the billions; Hickrod was disinclined to argue the point. “There isn’t any question about that: the amendment will raise the income tax. It’s intended to raise the income tax. But if you don’t vote for it, you will assuredly raise your property taxes, because the schools have no other source for funding. That stands that argument right on its head, doesn’t it? A vote against the amendment will simply tell the General Assembly that you’re in favor of business as usual–which means more property tax increases.”

How much is a reasonable expenditure per pupil? “The proponents of the amendment read that into the record in the General Assembly: an adequate education costs about $4,000 per year per child.” What about “equality of educational opportunity”? “You could argue, based on that language, for additional money for children at risk.”

Hickrod dismisses fears that education will be leveled down (“Can you see the legislature passing something that would level down?”) and that the “limits of their capacities” clause will open the door to lawsuits. “It’s true that it will be regarded as a mandate to help the handicapped and children at risk. There will have to be funds for children with special needs. But it will depend on whatever the legislature is willing to spend for education.”

If the amendment is defeated, says Hickrod, “the court case will continue. But we would not see another amendment on the ballot. This is a one-time opportunity. If it’s defeated, it’s defeated for all time.

“The really bad thing about a defeat is that I wonder how it would play outside of Illinois. I wonder what it says to the company president, to the CEO who says, ‘Illinois is opposed to the right to an adequate education–and what does that say about the quality of the work force?’ What is he going to say if he’s thinking about locating a plant here? You might try asking some of the chamber of commerce and manufacturing people about that.”

“That’s not too hard,” laughs John Skorburg when posed Hickrod’s question. Skorburg is chief economist for the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, which opposes the amendment. “I don’t think it says anything to that CEO in the short term if we reject a badly written amendment. I think that, in the long term, if the business community turned their backs on education it would say something. But the business community has not and will not turn their backs on education.”

Skorburg notes that the chamber has an education committee whose express purpose is looking for ways to improve the Illinois work force for the next century. But its members don’t think the amendment will do that. “We’re opposed to it for three reasons: it would increase state income taxes, both corporate and personal, by up to 50 percent; it doesn’t really guarantee any increase in quality; and it doesn’t do anything to keep down property taxes. We think there are better ways to solve the problem. We think you ought to get the business sector together with the government and education community, before you just come up with 50 percent more money, push that money at education, and hope it somehow solves the problem.

“Education, health, and safety are [the chamber’s] three biggest concerns, and we hope the government will reprioritize. But we say that the schools need more accountability. We want to see them use the money they get more effectively, so that they can bring out more educated people to the work force. That will benefit us all.”

David Juday is the chairman of the board and CEO of Ideal Industries in Sycamore, Illinois. He’s also vice-chairman of the Illinois State Board of Education, and a supporter of the Education Amendment.

“An awful lot of us are for it in principle,” he says of the business community. “The state chamber of commerce and the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association are not speaking for the masses.”

Sitting on the board of education, he says, he has “a greater insight into the problems of the state. The direction that funding of education has taken in the last 15 years has us on a collision course with disaster. We as a state are not standing up to our moral and legal obligations: we are forcing certain parts of the state, based on geography, into substandard education. We’ve known for a long time that state funding was inadequate and unfair.” When attempts to get the General Assembly to raise its funding for education failed, Juday joined the amendment bandwagon.

Does he see any problems with the amendment? “I’m not a jurist; I’m not a constitutional scholar. I wouldn’t be so presumptuous as to say the wording was vague, unclear, or inadequate. It addresses things we need to address in Illinois.”

Will suburbanites get anything out of the amendment? “If they’re citizens of Illinois, the answer would be yes. We’re most emotionally intense about the closest things to us. We also have to realize that we’re part of a larger group. Not just in geography, but in time. If we spend a dollar today on education, we can save $2 tomorrow,” says Juday, who sees serious problems arising with the coming of an uneducated generation. Of the individual who objects to being taxed with no evident return, he says, “That’s a person who’s got his head in the sand; that’s a person who’s taking a very shortsighted view; that’s a person who’s saying, ‘I don’t want to pay taxes.'”

What about the lack of correlation between spending and achievement? “That’s a good point. I think it would be interesting to do a study showing the correlation between a lack of money and low achievement.”

But Juday also says there are problems with education that need to be addressed. “We in the education field have been completely focused, inappropriately, on process.” Teaching requirements demand hours of methods classes, “but nowhere have we said you have to demonstrate a knowledge of a given subject to be a teacher. The law says how many minutes a child has to spend in school–but it doesn’t say that child has to know how to read. We go to a school and check credentials and count urinals, and we say, ‘Yes, this is an adequate environment for children to learn in.’

“I don’t think we have ever had a proper focus on educational results. They should have tied productivity to funding–‘Here’s what we guarantee [in results], and here’s what it will cost.’

“I’m disappointed that this constitutional issue has turned into a partisan issue–all the Democratic candidates are for it; all the Republican candidates are against it. I’m disappointed that labor is on one side and business is on the other. I’m disappointed that we haven’t seen the antis come forward and talk very specifically about what the role of the state is in funding education. The tax issues notwithstanding, we need to form policies on state funding of education. It’s easy to be against something, especially when taxes are involved. It’s a little more challenging to take it beyond that.”

“I think the amendment is a bad idea,” says Bill Dart, lobbyist for the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association. “I think it will drive businesses out of the state. They’re going to have to spend $1.8 to $3 billion just for education–and once the door is opened to taxes, there’re going to be a lot of people standing in line. I think we’re looking at a $5 billion income tax increase, and a new tax on drugs and food. It’s a direct reflection of the legislature’s inability to do its job. It’s a reflection of irresponsibility.”

Dart points out that the state increased its spending by 100 percent in the 1980s (50 percent adjusted for inflation during the decade). “They could have plowed that into education. They could have designated a percentage of the state’s gross income for education–of course, then they would have had to look for other places to cut.

“I definitely don’t think there will be any improvement in education in the state if the amendment passes–but there will be a definite increase in cost. And particularly coming at a time when manufacturing’s trying to stay competitive, it will drive companies out of the state. Keep in mind that the state is on the edge of bankruptcy. It’s in debt by a billion dollars.” In Dart’s view, Illinois does not need more mandated taxation and spending.

“There are some very well-meaning people who are backing this amendment who are concerned about the quality of education. We’re concerned, too, but this is not the way to do it. If we were in boom times, it might have been one thing–but right now the merchants are teetering. If you take that much more money away from the consumers, you’re going to have a disaster.”

“We’re polling support at 75 percent,” says Chris LaPaille, whose Agenda Communications is running the proamendment campaign for the “umbrella coalition” supporting it. (LaPaille is invariably referred to in news reports as the wife of Gary LaPaille, state senate candidate and former top assistant to Illinois House dictator Mike Madigan.) “Most people realize that the world is a tougher place than when they were kids, and they have to invest in the schools to have a productive work force for the future.

“Unfortunately, our opponents and the media, to some degree, are focusing on the tax issues. If we can keep the voters focused on the fundamental reason the amendment needs to pass, we can win. That’s the goal, and it’s a tough goal–unfortunately, we don’t have enough money–but I think it’s attainable.”

Thom Serafin is running the CARE (Coalition for Accountable and Responsible Education) campaign against the amendment; CARE’s a group of about 30 organizations. “We’ve got manufacturers and tax groups–it’s a very interesting collection. Not too often do these kinds of people band together. CARE wants to increase funding for education–but we don’t want to keep sending money down a big dark hole. Let’s fix the broken systems and then fund them. Let’s give accountability a chance to work.

“In 1981, Illinois spent a total of $5.6 billion on education; today we’re spending $10 billion–with 118,000 fewer public school students. That’s a 60 percent increase. In just state money, we’ve increased spending by 64 percent.

“The whole thing is a shell game. It’s a real hustle on the Illinois voter. Everybody’s for education. And we need money for education. We need it. But this isn’t the way to do it.”

“We don’t tend to point fingers at the governor or the legislature on this–we think the problem is that there is no clear message in the law of the land,” says Rich Clemmons. Clemmons is director of state legislation for the Bloomington-headquartered Illinois Farm Bureau, one of the proamendment groups. “We have a membership-derived policy, and one of the things in our education finance policy is the need to support change in state funding of education to more than 50 percent. We think the constitutional language needs to be changed.”

Clemmons admits that the often cash-poor landowners who belong to the Farm Bureau would like the burden of the property tax removed, but says, “That’s not necessarily self-serving–the main factor is a concern for the future of the state.”

Is this just another downstate ploy to get the Chicago area to foot the bills for their part of the state? “We see it more globally, or more statewide, anyway. Everybody pays for poor education. If the areas that are doing well don’t see a responsibility for [the rest of the state], we will just have more problems.

“This has been labeled a ‘blank check’ by some opponents, but we don’t think the legislature will let that happen.” What about activist judges, like the one who ordered property tax increases in Kansas City, Missouri, increases that voters had turned down several times? Could we see that kind of taxation without representation here? “I don’t see the Illinois courts acting that way. I think a lot of things on the con side have just been thrown up to make people fearful.”

“I haven’t personally made up my mind about what I’m going to do in the voting booth,” says Michael Bakalis. Bakalis, the former state superintendent of education, state comptroller, deputy undersecretary of education in the Carter administration, and, until recently, president of troubled Triton College, says he has “mixed feelings” about the amendment. “I think the direction of the amendment is correct, having the state take more responsibility for the funding of schools. The schools need money.”

But Bakalis has three main reservations: “Number one, there’s no guarantee of what the money would be used for. It’s clear to me that the correlation between money and quality is very, very weak at best. If this money is just to be used to do the same things they’re doing now, I’m against it. Second, there’s no guarantee of property tax relief–and this [amendment] is going to result in a very substantial increase in the state income tax. Finally, there’s no guarantee at all that the wording of the amendment is not going to end up embroiled in the courts. In fact, I guarantee that it will be challenged.

“This is a noncourageous way to raise money without saying anything. The governor is kind of laying low on this one; he’s not taking a position, so he doesn’t alienate anyone. If it passes, he’s got a way to raise taxes; if it fails, he can say the people didn’t want it.

“I think people should consider very carefully before they just go voting blindly for a major, major tax increase.”

The Chicago Board of Education has no doubts about the education amendment: the board is all for it, and has passed a resolution in support of it, says Richard Guidice, assistant superintendent for governmental relations.

“This amendment is meeting our responsibility to serve the children of our state. In the last few years, there has been a marked decrease in state participation in funding. That throws the burden on local government. There should be a reprioritizing by the state in making education its primary responsibility.”

Guidice agrees that the amendment will carry a fairly large price tag: “No one is going to be naive enough to believe it can be done without an income tax increase.” He’s hoping for some property tax relief in exchange.

“I believe education in the entire state would benefit from the amendment–not just Chicago. Chicago is right in the middle [for student expenditures]–some districts are much, much worse off than Chicago financially. But certainly we would benefit from any increase in state aid.”

“The Chicago high schools now have $7,945 per student; the elementary schools are spending $4,700, for an average of $5,548,” says Loyola University lecturer Patrick Keleher, who is also president of TEACH America (Taxpayers for Educational Accountability and Choice). “Their spending is totally out of hand now. Compare the results they’re getting for close to eight thousand bucks a kid in Chicago with the top [Roman Catholic] high schools, Saint Ignatius and Fenwick, which have half that money.”

Like others, Keleher sees the problems of the Chicago schools centering on their administration–“55 of 100 employees in the Chicago public school system are nonteaching.” He also points out that the state portion of Chicago’s funding is not down, contrary to the claims of some amendment proponents. “The state portion’s percentage has dipped only because local spending increased. The actual numbers are up.”

He continues, “If you look at the most recent ACT scores for 64 [public] high schools in Chicago, 58 of them rank nationally between the first and ninth percentiles; 23 of those 58 are in the bottom 1 percent–three or four years into school reform. And the dropout rate keeps increasing. The Chicago system really is a blotter–it’s a bottomless pit. The system is loaded with inefficiencies.

“They call this the ‘blank check amendment’ for good reason. Once you give [public education] that entitlement, you’re ensconcing a monopoly even further. The public schools should compete for a slice of the state pie. What we’re going to do with shifting [responsibility for educational funding] to Springfield is giving still more power to the members of an exclusive club.”

When ordinary citizens go to Springfield, they spend a lot of money on buses and ride for hours, just for a brief chance to get a legislator’s ear. But the professional lobbyists are always there–hanging around the Capitol, taking lawmakers out to dinner. Keleher fears that more and more authority for educational decisions will end up in the hands of the Springfield crowd. “I’m very much for genuine community power. Let the parents have the power. I’m really scared about state control.”

The Chicago Teachers Union has taken a strong proamendment stance. “Equality and opportunity are the two key words,” says Jackie Gallagher, the CTU president’s assistant for communications. “The bottom line is this: in a district like Chicago, the schools are acting as social service agencies, as health clinics, as counseling clinics, as police stations–you name it. In the old days, all that crap happened outside the schools. Now the schools are havens for kids. Teachers are dealing with pregnancy counseling in elementary school, with alcoholism, with getting shots. You have teachers making sure kids get glasses if they need them. You need dollars for the schools and dollars for all this other stuff. And somebody has to pay for it. It’s not that the amendment is going to miraculously take care of all these needs, but we see it as a strong first step.”

To Jim Tobin, it’s not the Education Amendment–it’s the Berman Tax Increase Amendment. Tobin, president of National Taxpayers United of Illinois, named chief sponsor Berman his organization’s “tax villain of the month” in June and a runner-up for “tax renegade of the year” a few weeks ago, on the basis of a legislative lifetime of supporting increases in state taxes and spending.

“It’s intentionally misleading,” charges Tobin of the amendment’s wording. “It doesn’t indicate that approval will result in $2.9 billion in increased taxes–that’s based on Illinois state figures–or the equivalent in spending cuts. Edgar says the income tax will have to be raised by 50 percent. This amendment, by raising taxes so high, will destroy more jobs. [The legislature] will have to raise the sales tax and institute a new state property tax, on top of all the local property taxes. Basically, this is a massive tax increase proposal. This is the most threatening proposal to taxpayers to appear on a ballot since the 1930s–when they defeated a state income tax.”

Tobin cites the studies showing a lack of correlation between spending and achievement, and adds an interpretation: the reason that there is no correlation, he says, is that “government has a near-monopoly on education; education is run by and for bureaucrats. They’re rewarded for the number of years they have, and not for the quality of their teaching. They could use increased competition.

“There’s a positive correlation between the parent’s socioeconomic status and achievement. How do you increase the income of the parents? You don’t do it by increasing taxes–you do it by rolling back taxes,” argues Tobin, who wants to reduce taxes to their 1988 levels, and who opposes property taxes. “The triennial or annual assessment, the multiplier–they’re all just scams to raise taxes without a referendum. If we roll back taxes, people will have more money–and they’ll be able to pull their kids out of bad public schools.

“Property taxes in Chicago are up $180 million. The average pay for teachers in Chicago is $50,000, when you include their benefits. This is the worst school system in the nation, and they’re just throwing more money at it. The Chicago public schools have hired more staff, despite a 30 percent drop in enrollment over the last ten years. It makes absolutely no sense.”

Governor Jim Edgar has been lying low on this issue–some accuse him of ducking it–but his executive assistant has some definite views on it. Michael Belletire worked for the state board of education before his present job, “so I’m aware of funding inequities. There’s no question that they exist. We’ve had a system that has too wide a range. But there’s nothing in the amendment that guarantees funding equity.

“I think the administration has looked on the amendment as well-intentioned–but it pretty well guarantees a major tax increase.” Along with the objections others have cited, Belletire sees another danger–the loss of local control over schools.

“This will alter our general understanding of the structure of Illinois schools,” he warns. “Throughout our history, we have had, as designed by public sentiment, laws, and desire, a system of locally based public schools. The authority and responsibility for those schools has been vested in local boards. The amendment will mean a shift to state-directed education. Once the majority of funding is from the state, the General Assembly is going to be more proscriptive. You can expect encroachment by the state on the control of education because of the golden rule: he who has the gold makes the rules.”

Like others on the antiamendment side, Belletire points out that the legislature has the power to fund schools more fully and fairly right now. “This is a backdoor way to skirt the very issues they say they want to support. There is nothing to stop the General Assembly from raising their responsibilities, limiting property taxes, redistributing funding, setting minimums for funding, or setting maximums on certain types of expenditures. In a sense, they’re throwing up their hands and turning their responsibilities back to the people. I’m not sure it’s the healthiest way to approach it, when the legislature is elected to make those decisions.”

How would the administrative demands of the amendment be handled? “The General Assembly would have to come up with a plan by which they would, number one, raise revenues, and, number two, decide how they would be distributed.”

He notes that in two years of meeting, a task force of education professionals failed to come up with a formal report on what should be done to improve education in Illinois. “All they said was that spending should be $4,000 per pupil. Well, Chicago and a large area of the suburbs already exceed that level. Some people believe that this will assist the Chicago public schools, but I’m not sure by how much, since they already get close to 50 percent of their funding from the state–an almost 25 percent increase over the last four years.”

Belletire says he “could contemplate a shift from the property tax to the income tax [for school funding]–but it would have to be a true shift.” And speaking for Jim Edgar, he says, “Even if [the amendment] should fail, it will not change his view that more state money should be spent for education.”

If the Chicago schools are reasonably funded, where’s the money going? Too much of it, say many observers, is wasted on bureaucracy. They say that the city’s public schools need to clean up their act and put the money they already have to better use. The fingers are pointed at the administrative offices on Pershing Road. “Not nearly enough effort has gone into reducing the bureaucracy at Pershing. They have people on top of people on top of people over there,” charges Judy Baar Topinka. “The administration is top-heavy and too political. Maybe it’s time to hire professionals to run and manage the schools as a business. We pay an inordinate amount of money to the current superintendent–we’re always sending him to California, where he apparently still has a home; we’re paying for parties and other expenditures. People in the suburbs wouldn’t put up with that. And it’s not just Ted Kimbrough–Ruth Love used to live high off the hog, too. There must be something in the water over there. We ought to get them a new water cooler!”

“The [Chicago archdiocesan] Catholic schools educate one-third the number of students that the Chicago public schools do, and they do it with a total of about 40 administrators,” notes the spokesman for the Committee for Educational Rights. “The Chicago schools have an incredible bureaucracy. There are certainly racial politics involved here, because Pershing Road has historically been where the black aldermen have been able to stash their constituents.”

The Chicago teachers are another politically powerful group. Topinka says she’s tired of them “coming to the bargaining table demanding a 7 percent increase, and acting charitable when they accept a mere 6.1. There’s always this worry about whether they’ll settle and open the schools each fall. That’s extortion. Nobody in this economy is getting 7 percent increases. I’ve got a lot of people around here who would be thrilled to have any job. They ought to stop that garbage, and pull in their horns until the recession’s over.

“I can see why some suburban legislators do not want to vote more money for the Chicago schools–they see it going down a hole. There’s no accountability. It’s not like we don’t give Chicago beaucoup bucks to make that system run.

“I’m not a Chicago-basher. I love Chicago–but the school system is unfathomable. I say to them: Don’t try to bamboozle us with the Education Amendment. There’s no reason Chicago can’t have a good school system right now. Just clean up your house.”

Most of the people speaking against the Education Amendment stress their concern for more equitable funding for education; several have alternative plans to offer.

“It’s not fair to tear down without offering a way to build up,” remarks Topinka. She would get rid of the existing school aid formula, and simply offer a per-capita grant to all school districts, “per pupil, so that everyone gets the same start.” For districts wishing to go beyond that, she suggests a local income tax to replace the property tax assessment for schools. “This would be a local income tax, to stay in that local school district, just like the property tax does now. It would not be a general income tax, and it would not go to the state. I think this would be the fairest and most equitable way of raising funds.”

Topinka would like to see “perks and incentives” offered to the state’s agglomeration of tiny school districts, in order to encourage consolidation. “The patchwork we have now means that there is just no way that we can have a fair, equitable distribution of funds. There are too many variables.” She also feels strongly that “the state and federal governments have got to stop sending mandates to schools. Let them do what they’re supposed to do–teach.”

She wants to see corporations, foundations, and individuals help with funding schools. And she wants to see lottery funds go straight to the schools, “over and above” the money the General Assembly appropriates for them. “It should be a real bonus to the schools; right now, it’s a smoke-and-mirrors wash.” At present, the legislature simply appropriates the money brought in by the lottery. “This has to stop.”

Tom Hetland of the Heartland Institute thinks the solution lies in school choice–and in a voucher system. Vouchers allow parents to apply a certain amount of the money that would be spent on their children in a public school–amounts suggested vary, but the usual is 50 percent, or about $2,500–on private school tuition. “The people who are well served in the Chicago public school system are the people who feel they have another option–the people who can transfer to a magnet school, or to Saint This or Holy That. The people whose enthusiasm for education is drained are those who feel they have no choice at all.

“The solution to improving scores lies in letting people go where they want,” says Hetland, who notes that, in his Roman Catholic family, all seven children went to parochial grade school but were given a choice of high schools. “It was an extra incentive to learn, as opposed to just being assigned somewhere.” He also notes that most Chicago public school teachers evidently appreciate the attraction of choice: almost half of them educate their own children in private schools, and others have their offspring in suburban systems. “I would guess that a very small percentage of Chicago public school teachers would send their children to public school without trying to direct” them into a magnet school or other elite institution.

His solution “mimics higher education. If you want to go to a state school you aren’t assigned to one; you have a choice of probably two dozen state colleges and universities where the tuition is kept very low. I believe in the magic of choice. Offer a choice, and people will demand quality. Folks will come alive.”

There are many variations on the school choice theme, he observes; “some would apply to low-income [families], some to low- and middle-, and some to all. Some systems allow [vouchers] only for nonsectarian private schools, like the Milwaukee system,” where lower-income blacks battled the public school lobby to get a measure of choice for their children. “Or you could have vouchers to allow you to attend a different public school than the one you’re assigned. There could be different vouchers for people in different circumstances–like extra money for poor kids. You could have extra money for special education kids; it’s only right.”

With a voucher system, Hetland avers, “the state would accept the responsibility for educating all children, not just those in the public schools. And with a 50 percent plan, you’re still favoring the public schools in a big way.”

Although some critics of school choice plans attack them as “aid for the rich,” Hetland says that’s not true. “Eighty percent of the wealthy people in this country have their kids in public schools; they live in nice suburbs with good schools. This would help the long-forgotten middle class, the people who always pay for the programs but get left out of them. This would help the kid in the inner city have a chance at a decent education, and a chance to climb out of poverty.”

Arthur Berman, chief sponsor of the Education Amendment, is determinedly antivoucher. “There has never been a proposition that would really take care of all children. Since the beginning of this country, the public school system has been what enables this country to maintain itself as a great country. It sounds like a Fourth of July speech–but it’s true. They spend $5,500 per student per year in Chicago–do you know of any voucher system that proposes to spend $5,500 per student per year?” But parochial schools do a far better job of education than the public schools in Chicago, while spending much less money per student. “Parochial schools get to pick their students,” he retorts. “Do you think a private system is going to do a better job for all children? I don’t think so.”

Rich Clemmons is more worried that school choice would mean absolutely nothing in rural areas. “You’ve got a very dispersed population, and the public school is the only thing there. I think rural people would be skeptical.”

“The governor is of the opinion that choice within the public school sector is something that local school districts can contemplate right now,” says Michael Belletire. “Private schools are good for kids, but bad for the schools. They take away the middle- and upper-income kids from the Chicago schools. There’s a lot to be said for diversity–and that’s lost when the upper- and middle-income kids are not in there.”

“Don’t get me started on vouchers!” says Jackie Gallagher of the CTU. “This is one of those issues that has a lot of different facets, and not one of them is a good one. The union is strongly opposed to vouchers and always has been, no matter how they’re cloaked. We sure shouldn’t be using tax dollars to finance private education.

“A private school could reject the kid with a learning disability, the kid who’s a troublemaker, the kid who’s pregnant, the kid who’s a drunk, the kid who’s a junkie. The public school, by law, must take them in. School choice has been simplistically announced as a way to improve the schools and empower people. This union believes that if it was ever put into effect in this city, you’d have two levels of education.” Is there no benefit to competition? “That’s a lot of crap. It’s all demagogic, simplistic rhetoric. It’s all nonsense. I think you’d still find the poor, struggling kid in a public school. And even if the voucher was just $1,000 per kid, that’s a lot of money. Who’s going to get it? Are the Whittles of the world going to get it?

“Anyone who goes into the [Chicago public] schools and sees what sort of conditions exist comes away shaking their heads. I’m sure there are kids who are not being served, but it’s not fair to lay the blame on the schools. The problem is unfit parents. The problem is lack of nourishment. The problem is the world outside the schools.”

But Michael Bakalis believes there’s value in the concept of vouchers, which seem to be working in those places where they’ve been tried. “I think we should keep our minds open to it. I think there should be some experimentation. Too many people have their minds closed to the idea–but should we not think differently about the whole structure of schooling? Is what we have now working so well?”

“Giving kids a bad education is the next best thing to killing them outright,” says Judy Topinka. “Ultimately, nothing is going to work in education if the families are not involved. You cannot legislate this. Kids are not going to achieve if school is not perceived as their jobs by the people at home. The moms and dads have to be involved; they have to reinforce the lessons by letting their kids see them reading, by bugging their kids about their homework.

“There are many ways to improve education, and most of them don’t involve spending more money–but we have to climb over a lot of roadblocks, politicians, and special interest groups to find them. We lose it because we can’t get past ‘What’s in it for me?’ And we’re losing whole generations, because we’re not giving them the gift our parents gave us, the gift of a good education.

“The bottom line is the mission of education. And that’s not something you can buy.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/John Figler.