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Thursday, Feb. 12, 2004 01:37 am

Sound and fury

You really have to hand it to Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

By simply proposing to transfer the powers of the Illinois State Board of Education to his own office, Blagojevich did several huge favors for the teachers unions, forestalled any budget-busting funding increases for education and all but killed the income-for-property tax swap idea for the rest of his first term. At the same time, he positioned himself as feisty fiscal conservative, a gutsy hands-on reformer, and a concerned pro-education leader.

Not bad.

The teachers unions have had plenty of troubles with the State Board, particularly on the all-important teacher certification issue. So, the governor agreed to move that responsibility to a new entity that the teachers will probably control. Teachers contributed almost $1 million to the governor's 2002 campaign. He owes them big time.

During his State of the State address, Blagojevich claimed the State Board has allowed classroom funding to fall to 46 percent of education spending. Since the guv narrowly defines classroom funding as money spent on teachers' salaries, his entire effort to increase that 46 percent figure will directly benefit teachers' paychecks. I think the unions got their money's worth out of this guy.

But that's not all. The unions also don't want their members to continue paying part of the healthcare costs of retired teachers. So, Blagojevich wants local school districts to pick up the tab. The districts would also be forced into a statewide health insurance fund, which, the guv claims, would cut costs enough to more than offset the retiree payments. Never mind that a similar program in Texas has been disastrously expensive.

I assume that most people like the governor's proposal. Most of us don't care for high taxes and "Soviet-style" bureaucracies, as the governor referred to the State Board's administration.

So, expect the governor to find lots of "cost savings" in school spending when he proposes his new state budget. The more money he can scrounge, the more credibility his plan will have. More importantly, he will then be able to give the tax money that would have gone to the schools to other valued Statehouse constituencies.

He can even justify a much smaller budget increase for education this year as fiscally prudent simply by claiming that he first needs to make sure precious state dollars are spent wisely. The governor is using that very argument to fend off any proposal to replace Illinois' reliance on property taxes to fund local schools with a higher state income tax. Asked about a tax swap last week, Blagojevich said that he first must "get the confidence of the people back," so that they can "see more of their tax money go to where it has to be."

The guv has been under pressure to "prove" his commitment to the schools by supporting a swap plan. Instead, he's trying to change the terms of the debate.

What we have here is a plan that, at least for the moment, looks like a near-perfect political concept. The teachers unions are ecstatic, fiscal conservatives are pleasantly surprised, tax-eaters will be happy when some new state cash is freed up for them, and mothers are relieved that they have a governor who appears to be risking his own future for their kids.

Meanwhile, all the hoopla has caused the media and other Statehouse types to focus on the State Board controversy and ignore what the governor plans to do about actual education policy. He has created such a gigantic fury with this relatively small idea that nobody has bothered to ask what he will do with the fish once he catches it.

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