As Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge discovered to his chagrin last June, when state legislators failed to support his voucher proposal, Catholics may number in the millions and make up 30 percent of the state’s population, but the lobbying clout of the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference pales in comparison to that of the state’s largest teacher union, which represents fewer than 150,000 of the state’s voters.
This year, it was Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, a Chicago Democrat with a considerable reputation for political savvy, who discovered that the political influence of the state’s 31 percent Catholic population was no match for the state’s two teacher unions, with their 173,000 members.
In early April, Madigan backed a plan from the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago that called for state reimbursement of $200 per student in K-12 private schools to offset the cost of unfunded state mandates, such as record-keeping requirements. The cost of the plan was estimated at between $50 and $64 million.
By April 12, vigorous opposition from the state’s two teacher unions, the Illinois Education Association and the Illinois Federation of Teachers, had prompted lawmakers to change the plan from $200 each for private school students to $38 per student in all Illinois schools. This raised the total cost to $80 million, while reducing the private school share to just $12 million. But teacher union opposition continued unabated, and two days later Madigan admitted that even this compromise plan didn’t have the votes to pass in the House. The disputed $12 million for private schools ultimately was assigned to existing textbook and transportation funds that are shared between public and private schools.
While some observers see Madigan’s support of the mandate reimbursement as a shrewd political move to insulate state Democrats in the November election against charges of being insensitive to the plight of parochial schools, Madigan’s comments after the plan’s defeat belie that interpretation. Madigan’s remarks about the teacher union could easily have come from former University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman.
“I think [teacher unions are] motivated because, in my judgment, they don’t want competition in education in this country or in this state,” Madigan told the Chicago Tribune. “If you travel throughout the country, you’re going to find that there’s widespread discontent with the quality of instruction in public schools,” he continued. “A big part of that is that there’s no competition. There are established monopolies under the law.”
In the aftermath of the defeat, church officials in Chicago reportedly are again considering school closings, even as the Archdiocese struggles with a commitment to provide educational options for poor children who have no other alternative but the public schools.
“I can’t keep submitting deficit budgets to my own finance council if there is no hope that it will get any better,” a disappointed Cardinal George told the Chicago Tribune.
George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News.