School Funding Problems Provide Ripe Political Opportunity in Ill.

Published May 1, 2008

Exemplifying a reform opportunity that applies across the nation, Illinois legislators will be presented this year with yet another chance to reconfigure the political balance of power in their state and reestablish their electoral relevance.

Against the backdrop of Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s (D) State of the State Address in February, House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) allowed Senate Bill 2288 to begin slithering its way through the General Assembly once again.

SB 2288 (formerly House Bill 750) has been the legislative Rasputin of Illinois politicians, Republicans and Democrats alike, dating back to Gov. Jim Edgar (R) in the mid-1990s. The thrust of the bill is to increase the state income tax permanently from 3 percent to 5 percent in exchange for temporary property tax relief.

Where would the net increase in state revenue go? Say it with me: To fund education. Herein lies the political opportunity.

One Stipulation

Instead of getting caught in a false debate about how much money for schools is enough, opponents of the hike (nearly all Republicans) should tell supporters of it (primarily Democrats) to name their price. Should the state increase the foundation level by 5 percent? Ten? Fifty?

Fine. Whatever.

But opponents must hold fast to one stipulation in return for their blank check on funding: For the City of Chicago, those dollars will no longer be attached to the Chicago Public Schools (CPS). Instead, they will be applied to individual CPS students so that their parents may send them to the school of their choosing, public or private, citywide.

This is something Republicans, common-sense Independents, and Democrats statewide can get behind–because everybody gets it when it comes to the importance of their children’s education.

Dire Statistics

Illinois families understand that today, more than ever, education is the gateway to opportunity and dream fulfillment. They are well aware of the increasing earning gap between college graduates and non-graduates in our global, digital economy.

And Illinois families understand they have a moral responsibility to do something about CPS’s chronic underperformance.

How bad is it?

One statistic says it all. According to a report released earlier this year by the Consortium on Chicago School Research, only six of every 100 freshmen who entered a CPS high school last September will ultimately earn a bachelor’s degree from college.

Six in 100. Spread that math over a universe of 400,000 children and you begin to understand the enormity of the crisis.

Illinois families also intuitively comprehend that no matter where you live, when a system responsible for educating 400,000 children fails the overwhelming majority of them every year, as CPS does, we all pay.

Criminal Activity

So, knowing all that we know, isn’t it a shame what we allow to occur in Chicago? In fact, isn’t it a crime?

In 2006, CPS chief Arne Duncan told the Chicago Tribune, “When students are unprepared for college or the world of work, they are condemned to social failure. We are doing everything we can to dramatically change the high school experience for our teenagers.”

I don’t know who “we” are, and I don’t much care. Even were I to attribute the best of intentions to Duncan, CPS will never dramatically change itself. As we have seen, doing everything they can is simply not good enough.

That’s why the Illinois General Assembly stepped in to restructure CPS in 1995. It was a genuine attempt, but it addressed form (creating local school councils) to the exclusion of function, and so fell short of the overhaul required.

We know CPS is an abysmal failure. We know we will all be held to account, morally and financially, for that failure. We know there is precedent for the General Assembly to summon its collective will to intervene.

Most importantly, we know low-income children–of all races but disproportionately minorities–are getting a raw deal. It’s not fair, and it’s not right–but with a smidge of political courage it is eminently fixable.

Proven Reform

The city of Milwaukee figured this out 17 years ago when it launched its Parental Choice Program. That effort was spearheaded by Democrat legislator Polly Williams and Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson. Bipartisanship on this issue is achievable in Chicago–it’s already been done elsewhere.

Likewise, Cleveland defended its citywide voucher program all the way to the Supreme Court in 2002, and won. So it clearly passes constitutional muster as well.

To paraphrase a sentiment from the late, great Ray Charles, letting the market “do what it do (baby)” has given us a national landscape in which nine states and the District of Columbia operate 16 private-school choice programs–some tailored to students with particular challenges, such as Ohio’s program for autistic children and Florida’s McKay Scholarship Program for special-needs students.

According to School Choice Yearbook 2007, released in late March by the Alliance for School Choice, 75 percent of the programs enacted over the past two years garnered Democratic support in state legislatures.

Race to the Finish

CPS has already dipped its toe into the pool of competition. Charter schools and magnet schools, which CPS currently features, are nothing less than an admission that the rest of the system is in cardiac arrest.

If the neighborhood schools to which children are bound by their geography were getting the job done, why the need to create schools that have greater flexibility with the rules and curricula? Why the need to set up magnet schools with entrance exams to attract the city’s best and brightest? Shouldn’t all high schools citywide be viewed as “college prep” schools?

Frankly, expanding competition in CPS is a way for both political parties to escape the Sisyphean exercise of pouring ever-increasing amounts of money into a system beset by flaws so fundamental that no amount of money can fix them.

The political party in Illinois that devotes itself to the aspirations of low- and middle-income families trapped in the discredited edu-ocracy currently robbing their children of their futures–and stands up for proven, market-oriented reforms–will (and should) dominate the state’s political landscape for generations to come.

Dan Proft ([email protected]) gives a weekly political commentary on the “Don Wade & Roma Morning Show” on WLS-AM 890 in Chicago and is a contributing columnist to the Chicago Tribune’s RedEye publication. Previous versions of this commentary appeared in the Southtown Star and St. Clair County Record.