SPRINGFIELD - The one thing that every candidate running for governor agrees on is that Illinois must do a better job of paying for education.
But how this will be accomplished becomes a more complex issue as the candidates try to balance voter disdain for tax increases with promises to put more money into classrooms.
Illinois schools are largely funded through local property taxes with state and federal money covering the rest.
"In Illinois, more than any other state, where you live determines what type of education you can get," said Democratic gubernatorial challenger Edwin Eisendrath.
Over the years, education groups have pushed for a tax swap that would increase personal income taxes while providing property tax relief. Several gubernatorial candidates are concerned that increasing taxes doesn't necessarily mean the money going to education.
"I'm not persuaded that the solution to the education funding problem is to raise taxes," said Republican Ron Gidwitz, a former president of the Illinois State Board of Education. "It's an excuse to tax people more to use for other purposes."
Lawmakers have refused to consider a tax swap fearing a backlash at the ballot box. Many of the gubernatorial candidates have promised to not raise taxes if they are elected.
Incumbent Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who recently renewed his pledge to not raise the income or sales tax, is campaigning on an education platform that includes universal preschool for all kids. To achieve this and other school increases, the governor wants to sweep special funds and close tax loopholes.
"We funded education, raised standards, expanded preschool, and cut red tape. You should be proud of the progress we have made," said Blagojevich during his recent re-election announcement.
Eisendrath called the no tax pledge "a cowardly political act in the state of Illinois. It is not a moment of braveness." The former Chicago alderman said he would consider all possible revenue increases, including a tax swap.
While the administration has increased the amount of money is spends on each student in Illinois, it still falls $1,241 short of the $6,405 recommended by the state-run Education Funding Advisory Board. The governor also has failed to meet his own goal of increasing per pupil spending by $1,000 over four years. So far, Blagojevich has increased spending $604 for each Illinois student.
Another Republican candidate, state Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka, argues Blagojevich is just piling on proposals that don't take into account the growing pension debt that will eat up future funds for all state spending, including education
"You don't fund it by adding program on top of program which is what Gov. Blagojevich is doing," said Topinka in a debate on Chicago Public Radio. "This is another feel good program added onto a school program that is under-funded to begin with."
All four Republican candidates are calling for cutting red tape and bureaucracy as a way to push more money into the classroom.
"We need to get rid of the state superintendent, we need to get rid of the state board," said Republican challenger Bill Brady, a state senator from Bloomington, during the Chicago Public Radio debate. He wants to put the duties of the state board of education under the control of the governor's office.
Brady, who also opposes raising taxes, said he wants to devote 51 percent of the state's natural revenue growth toward education. He also proposes setting aside 10 percent of that growth for property tax relief.
Dairy owner Jim Oberweis, another Republican seeking to knock off Blagojevich, suggests that money could be saved by encouraging school consolidation.
"I believe that we already have sufficient dollars being spent on our educational process in Illinois, but those dollars are not effectively used," he said. "Too many dollars are wasted on administration and bureaucracy."
Oberweis also proposes offering teachers merit raises opposed to handing out pay increases based on tenure.
Gidwitz has proposed several education reforms, including smaller classrooms and more attention paid to reading instruction in a child's early years. To pay for this, he wants education to be the state's top funding priority.
"Look at the constitution - that says the state has the primary responsibility for funding education," he said. "Right now the state is providing 32 percent of all the funding for education. I don't know that's taking primary responsibility."
Topinka also supports the creation of new charter schools and vocational training for certain high-schoolers.
The primary election is March 21.