A day after Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich unveiled his $10 billion school financing and education reform plan, lawmakers, local school officials and teachers union representatives raised serious reservations, suggesting that key portions of the proposal will face a rocky path.
Virtually every aspect of the agenda —from state takeover of failing schools to merit pay for teachers to mandated after-school tutoring — has its skeptics and detractors.
Overall, educators applauded Blagojevich for laying out an agenda that jolts the debate about improving public schools and would infuse money into the system. The money would come from the sale or lease of the state lottery.
But when the plan is taken apart on the merits of educational changes, critics start jabbing.
Teachers union officials worry that a proposal to award raises based on student performance could be arbitrary and unfair if not left up to local districts to decide.
Republican lawmakers say some of the ideas already have come up before the General Assembly and died because they failed to get enough votes.
Local superintendents and elected school board members object to portions of the plan that they charge will wrest decisions away from them and put them in the hands of state education officials.
"This is a slap in the face of local control," said Walt Warfield, executive director of the Illinois Association of School Administrators. The governor is saying "that the state board, which has absolutely no track record of educational excellence, even competence, is in a better position to run a school than a locally elected body," Warfield said. "The higher up in government you go, the accountability and credibility tapers off."
The governor's office was not surprised by the reaction.
"We have faced criticism and opposition before, but you cannot use that criticism and opposition as an excuse for inaction," said Rebecca Rausch, a spokeswoman for the governor.
Rausch stressed that any state takeover would be the last step after a series of interventions to help districts improve.
And any so-called merit or performance pay plan to reward teachers based on student performance would start out as a small pilot project involving only districts and local unions that want to participate, she said.
In addition, rewards would not likely be based on a sole criterion such as scores on state reading and math tests.
Traditionally, teachers have been paid based on years of experience, education degrees and cost-of-living adjustments, and efforts nationwide to change that approach have been controversial.
State Sen. Dan Cronin (R-Elmhurst) said he proposed a merit pay plan about10 years ago in the legislature, and it failed miserably.
"The concept, if properly structured, is a good one, but it is a huge uphill battle," Cronin said.
Richard Manley, president of a Joliet-based local affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers, said his union tried to work with school officials on at least two occasions over the last decade to create a performance pay plan. In one case, they never reached agreement; in the other, no teacher ever met the standard to get a merit raise. "It is an extremely challenging task," Manley said.
The governor's proposal would have to be approved by the legislature in the fall.
About $4 billion of the proceeds would be spent over the next four years on classroom programs, school construction, expanded preschool and full-day kindergarten, merit pay for teachers, and new textbooks. Much of the money would be targeted at low-performing schools and students.
Educators applauded the proposal to pump more money into special education, which is severely underfunded in Illinois. The plan would increase by several thousand dollars the $8,000 per teacher now given to districts to offset the cost of special-education salaries.
They offered praise for plans to direct more state money into transportation and free lunch. And they supported the proposal to update textbooks every six years.
The textbook proposal comes after a Tribune investigation that exposed tattered and outdated textbooks across the state.
But State Rep. Roger Eddy, a Republican who is also superintendent of a Downstate school district, said replacing books every six years would take more than the $40 million the governor has proposed to update books. "I think you have to be careful when you mandate a schedule, that you also allocate enough dollars," he said.
Some worry that Blagojevich's $10 billion plan gives too much power to state education officials and allows the state government to drive local education issues.
"They have singled out specific programs that they want to fund, and we feel like they are substituting their judgment on education issues for local judgments," said Michael Johnson, executive director of the Illinois Association of School Boards. "Of course, we support many of the programs they are proposing, but we are a little uncomfortable with them directing so much of the money."
The governor's proposal includes $1.5 billion for school construction and repair projects, some of which have long been on waiting lists.
"I would like to be optimistic," said Diane Cody, superintendent of Winfield School District 34, which was supposed to get $2.3 million in 2002. "But it's very hard to be optimistic after waiting four years."