Governor boosts education

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. – Gov. Rod Blagojevich is proposing a $440 million increase for public schools and colleges next year, with plans to expand preschool to all children, reduce class sizes and offer college students $1,000 tax credits.

His budget would open pre-kindergarten schooling to 32,000 more 3- and 4-year-olds in the state, regardless of income, at a cost of $135 million over three years.

“The opportunity for children to learn during these precious years shouldn’t be squandered. It should be embraced. But a 3-year-old or a 4-year-old can’t say, ‘Mom, send me to preschool,'” Blagojevich said during Wednesday’s budget address. “It is up to a parent to decide whether their child should go to preschool. It is up to us to make sure they have that choice.”

The first-term Democrat also proposes offering $10 million in grants to schools that reduce early-grade class sizes to 15. And freshmen and sophomores at the state’s public universities who maintain a “B” average would get tax credits to help cover tuition costs – a $90 million initiative to be funded by selling the state’s student loan investments.

As in past years, Blagojevich, who won tighter control over the education bureaucracy two years ago, declined to specify how he wants to spend the rest of the education money he requested in an address Wednesday. He would leave that to negotiations with the General Assembly.

Of the increase, Blagojevich said cash-strapped Chicago schools would get $100 million, an amount Mayor Richard Daley said still would leave city schools $110 million short in erasing a $328 million deficit.

The proposed school-spending hike would be a far cry from one of Blagojevich’s 2002 campaign promises – putting toward education 51 percent of all new state revenue. The budget blueprint of $45 billion includes $1.23 billion in new revenue.

Even including the $90 million college tax credit, the new school spending falls short of the pledge.

But the administration points to a number of education initiatives – including increasing overall school funding by $1.1 billion – they say eclipse the promise.

Blagojevich has increased early childhood education spending $30 million each year, expanding preschool’s reach to 25,000 additional children at risk of academic failure. His plan this year would aid 32,000 more kids with a three-year, $135 million investment – starting with $45 million in the budget year that begins July 1.

“We all love preschool, it’s a great idea,” said state Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka, Blagojevich’s leading Republican opponent for governor. “But where do we have the money to build the extra classrooms when we don’t even have the money to build the schools which in many cases are falling down over kids’ heads?”

Sen. Bill Brady, a Bloomington Republican also running for governor, said schools should not be required to offer preschool, but rather given extra money to spend on academic programs as they see fit.

The sale of the state’s student-loan portfolio was floated in the closing hours of last spring’s legislative session, but this time, the administration has university presidents on board.

It would sell the $3.5 billion fund to a private company for what lawmakers say could bring in as much as $500 million. No one’s loan terms would change, and state employees who handle the funds for the Illinois Student Assistance Commission would be promised comparable jobs with the private companies.

In addition to the $90 million tax-credit plan, which Democratic Senate President Emil Jones suggested might be made more “inclusive” by loosening grade requirements, higher education would benefit from $18 million to four-year schools for faculty salaries and $7 million more for community colleges.