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Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2004 04:15 am

High stakes

Diane Rutledge, superintendent of District 186: "We need a different kind of funding for our schools"

If the state opts to wager on more casinos as a way to dig itself out of debt, some say it's Illinois schools that will lose.

During the six-day legislative veto session that began this week, Senate President Emil Jones plans to introduce a controversial bill that would expand the number of state gaming licenses. New casinos are being considered for Chicago and its south suburbs, Waukegan and Rockford.

A simple majority vote and Gov. Rod Blagojevich's support would seal the deal, intended to relieve the state's projected billion-dollar shortfall for the next fiscal year.

"We could see a gaming package passed," says Jones spokesman Cindy Davidsmeyer. "If that occurs, it would create a new stream of revenue that could fund things like school construction."

But some observers warn that such a move would undermine a more ambitious and comprehensive effort to reduce the state's vast inequities in school funding.

Jim Broadway, the Springfield-based publisher of Illinois School News Service, for weeks has used his influential newsletter to tout the importance of House Bill 750. This legislation, unlikely to be considered in veto session, calls on the state to change the way schools are funded.

Currently Illinois relies heavily on local property taxes to fund schools -- a system that detractors say creates huge inequities between rich and poor districts.

Indeed, Illinois has the most inequitable education funding system in the country, with per pupil spending ranging from a high of more than $18,000 to a low of less than $5,000, according to statistics compiled by Chicago-based, bi-partisan think tank Center for Tax and Budget Accountability.

HB 750 proposes a change in the tax structure that would force the state to bear more responsibility for funding education. It also calls for a hike in sales and income taxes to help ease the state's budget crisis.

"If gambling gets expanded on the promise that it will fix problems of education funding," says Broadway, "it will blast the momentum that is building for true, honest reform for how to fund schools in Illinois."

"Our kids are being used as pawns in this game."

The school funding reform bill has many supporters, including former State Superintendent of Education Robert Schiller and Chicago Urban League Executive Director James Compton. But Blagojevich has long promised to block any increase in sales or income taxes, and has threatened to veto HB 750 if it passes the legislature.

Meanwhile, the governor appears to be warming up to an expansion in gambling, though he shot down such suggestions just a few months ago. On Monday Jones told reporters Blagojevich supports his gaming initiative, which includes a land-based casino in Chicago that would be owned by the city. A Blagojevich spokesman denied the claim.

Broadway, whose publication reaches hundreds of school administrators and board members statewide, has incited a letter-writing campaign against casino gambling in an effort to keep alive the school reform bill.

"The pressure is rising," says Broadway, who notes that 82 percent of school districts are currently deficit spending -- more than twice the number from four years ago.

Locally, state cutbacks have forced Springfield Public School District 186 Superintendent Diane Rutledge to discontinue many programs and eliminate positions. Funding to her district was slashed by $13 million in just the last four years. As a result, some classes in Springfield schools are bursting with as many as 35 kids, says Rutledge, though research shows that students tend to excel in class sizes less than half that size.

"We need a different kind of funding for our schools," says Rutledge. "Property taxes aren't the way to do this."

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