A raft of past programs have failed to substantially improve the reading skills of middle grade and high school students. CPS is trying once again, as part of a federal project that aims to help teens learn how to analyze complex non-fiction.
Millions less for Chicago schools
In early February, Chicago Public School officials called on the state to provide $175 million in state aid to the district for the coming fiscal year.
Instead, CPS' top budget official says the district stands to get only $35 million from the budget proposed by Gov. Rod Blagojevich, which he first shared with legislators just a week after CPS made its pitch.
The governor's budget would give schools across Illinois only $140 million, an amount that many education experts say is only about half of what is needed to keep the state's commitment steady from this year.
For the state to meet CPS's request, lawmakers would have to find roughly $600 million in new funds, more than four times what Blagojevich proposed.
This year, legislators funneled $389 million to education, down slightly from $400 million last year.
If the governor's budget is approved—and there are already signs of a contentious and drawn-out battle brewing over it this session—it would be the lowest increase for schools in the last three gubernatorial terms, noted Pedro Martinez, budget director for CPS.
'What is it going to take?'
Blagojevich's speech dashed the hopes of education activists and their supporters in the Legislature, making it clear that the governor is not interested in overhauling how schools are funded in Illinois.
"It sends a bad message," Martinez says. "I'm concerned overall for education. It makes me wonder: What is it going to take to get [the legislature] to look at the way we fund schools?"
"This is a cut in education funding," says state Sen. Dan Cronin of Elmhurst, the top Republican on the Senate Education Committee. "I know the governor is in a really tough spot. I know the revenues just aren't there. This is going to be a long, difficult, acrimonious session."
Blagojevich's message put him at odds with a key ally from last year's budget battle, Senate President Emil Jones Jr. (D-Chicago), who has repeatedly told reporters he wants to push for funding reform this spring and reduce schools' reliance on property taxes by boosting the state income tax, with the new revenue going to schools.
Jones has his own allies, including many Democrats in his caucus and Mayor Richard M. Daley, who has told reporters the governor should consider a tax swap. Jones has set up a special committee to hold hearings across the state on school funding; the first hearing was scheduled to be held Mar. 7 in Harvey. Cronin and state Sen. Miguel del Valle, a Chicago Democrat, are co-chairs of the committee.
But powerful House Speaker Michael J. Madigan (D-Chicago) has repeatedly expressed reluctance to debate any tax increases without Blagojevich leading the way.
There is also controversy over how Blagojevich plans to find the $140 million for schools: by shuffling money currently earmarked for other programs to schools instead.
Taxing cigarettes, toying with pensions, targeting Golden Apple
Another tough-to-stomach measure is Blagojevich's plan to raise the state cigarette tax by 75 cents a pack in order to pay for a school construction initiative.
Schools around the state, including CPS, have been clamoring for a construction program after lawmakers failed to renew it last year. Chicago schools rely on the state to pay a third of their construction costs.
But the prospect of piling on another tax for smokers, coupled with the governor's previous attempts to toy with the construction program, have legislators skittish about this latest push. Last year, Blagojevich tried to put a state agency under his control in charge of school construction and proposed reshuffling the order of schools in line for construction money, but lawmakers balked at both proposals.
This year, Blagojevich also asked for changes in pension benefits that could significantly scale back the retirement checks of new teachers from downstate. The Chicago Teachers Union is monitoring that effort closely lest CPS officials try a similar tack when trying to balance future budgets.
"I think it could set a dangerous precedent," says CTU spokeswoman Rosemaria Genova.
Martinez of CPS acknowledges that district officials are watching to see what happens with the governor's pension proposals, because pension costs are soaring for Chicago schools.
And for the third year in a row, Blagojevich has proposed eliminating all state funding for the Golden Apple Scholars program, which gives scholarships and mentoring to college students who promise to teach in needy schools; most students end up teaching in CPS. In the last two years, Golden Apple has rallied support from lawmakers and editorial boards around the state to help it keep at least some of its funding. A similar fight could ensue this year, too.
Reinstate writing tests
Del Valle, one of the legislature's top education experts, is pushing a measure that would once again require students to take the ISAT writing tests. Lawmakers removed that requirement last year as part of a sweeping budget package approved at the end of a record overtime session.
Across the aisle, Cronin wants to use data collected under the federal No Child Left Behind Act in new ways; for example, to track how individual classes fare as they make their way through school.
There are other proposals brewing to:
Let schools collect more money for driver's education classes.
Restore state support for gifted programs.
Require schools to teach students about other genocides in history, such as those that took place in Rwanda in the 1990s, while teaching about the Holocaust.
Prohibit schools that get state construction money and use it to build gyms from seeking waivers from physical education class requirements.
Boost graduation requirements for high school seniors, by mandating that they take three years of math (instead of two) and two years of science (instead of one). Since 1997, CPS has required students take three years of each.
Ban the sale of soft drinks in schools. CPS stopped selling junk food in school vending machines last year. Daniel C. Vock is the Statehouse bureau chief for the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin. To contact him, send an e-mail to email@example.com.