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The Changing Landscape for Illinois Public Education

Last December, I wrote about the   momentum growing across multiple constituencies for passage of School Funding Reform Act of 2014   (IL School Funding Changes Almost Surely Ahead).  Democrats, Republicans,   and the new Governor all agreed that poor school districts in Chicago, Southern, and Western Illinois are getting far too little state funding under the current system.  Now, in just a few short months it appears that passage of school funding reform is dead for the current legislative session and this has clearly pleased school districts that would have lost funding if the bill had become law.   (Not the right reform bill ).

What happened?    Deficit politics is the main reason why reform in general has been stymied in Illinois for years.   In his proposed budget, Governor Rauner is preparing for very large cuts across a large number of social services.   The pain will be spread far and wide, with $1.5 billion in cuts expected in the state’s Medicaid program, and $387 million to higher education, a 31 percent reduction. ( Rauner budget).

The Governor is also expected to slash funding for mass transit, including $112 million in cuts to the RTA, and cuts by as much as half the money that the state gives to municipal governments through the Local Government Distributive Fund. Chicago alone gets $250 million per year from the state, and a proportionate cut to its funding would blow a sizable hole in the city’s budget.  The proposal is also expected to include savings in payments to worker pension systems by moving all current employees to a “Tier 2” system for work going forward. That means they would keep the pension benefits they have accrued to this point, but receive lower pensions on their future earnings.

Whether one agrees that these massive cuts with no tax increase is a road to recovery from Illinois’ massive deficit or a road to further income disparity, there is no doubt that the Governor’s  desire to increase school funding and push school funding reform has been sacrificed in the political firestorm around his proposed cuts.  His budget calls for a $300 million increase in K-12 education spending and legislation to get a larger proportion of the state’s funds to the poorest school districts.  Rauner School Budget   These much needed reforms cannot get the attention they deserve because the focus has shifted to other tax and spending issues.  Democrats in the legislature have publically decried his refusal to extend the 5% income tax while demanding such large cuts in services.   While the Democrats hold super majorities in both houses, ironically Republicans in suburban Chicago having joined forces with the Democrats in stopping the passage of school funding reform because many of their school districts will lose funding under the school proposed funding reform bill.

Despite the political infighting that is likely to continue for the foreseeable future, there is little doubt that Bruce Rauner aims to make education reform to be one of the cardinal achievements of his administration.   To that aim, the Governor has appointed Anthony “Tony” Smith to become the new Superintendent of the Illinois State Board of Education.  Rauner describes Antony “Tony” Smith as a “transformational leader”  who  knows how to get things done.  Anthony Smith

Smith was named superintendent of the Oakland Schools in 2009, a district that was emerging from state control and facing a $40 million deficit.  It had a balanced budget when he left the district four years later and at the same time, based on statewide tests, Oakland became the most improved school district in the state.

Smith built his reputation with a vision of bringing families and  communities into efforts to combat poverty and  school improvements. He fought for a major expansion of charter schools and clashed with the teacher’s union over contract issues throughout his tenure.

Even though his background is in urban education, Mr. Smith has indicated that one of his first tasks will be to travel to central and Southern Illinois school districts, many suffering from years of state funding cuts due to  outmoded school funding laws.    Because Mr. Smith appears to be pro-Charter schools like Governor Rauner and Mayor Emmanuel, conflicts with teachers’ unions around the state are likely to escalate.   It would be very unfortunate if Illinois’ urgent need for school funding reform gets lost in the crossfire of the political wars around social service cuts and charter school expansion.


Robert Hoyt, Ph.D.
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