If this was easy, it would be done by now - Metropolitan Planning Council

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If this was easy, it would be done by now

MPC roundtable discusses how to overcome the challenges facing real education funding reform.

Photo courtesy of event co-host, Union League Club of Chicago

Reflections on recent legislative activity on school funding and tax reform led to a lively panel discussion on ways to successfully navigate the political landscape in the future. The panelists at the August 5 roundtable, “Getting the Job Done: The Politics of School Funding Reform,” stressed the need for bipartisan support, business engagement and social involvement, as well as a call for 2006 gubernatorial candidates to address education funding with real solutions, not no-tax pledges.
 
The Metropolitan Planning Council hosted the luncheon, co-sponsored by the Union League Club of Chicago, bringing together over 100 people for a thoughtful discussion of the challenges recent reform efforts have faced and how to overcome those obstacles.    
 
Moderator Cindy Richards, Chicago Sun-Times columnist and Chicago Parent senior editor, began the panel discussion by commenting that school funding was an issue when she began her journalism career in 1985. The crisis persists today, 20 years later, illustrated by the recent statistics showing the increasing gap in education spending. 
 
Mike Lawrence, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University and a journalist, discussed his experience as press secretary to Gov. Jim Edgar. He noted the amount of money needed to address school funding reform was large during Edgar’s time in office, but the amount needed now is much larger and must also address the state’s structural deficit and inability to pay its current bills. With a gubernatorial election next year, Lawrence stressed that he does not believe this problem can be addressed under a no-tax pledge and candidates should avoid such campaign tactics.
 
Tom Johnson, partner at KPMG and former director of the Illinois Dept. of Revenue, stressed the importance of engaging two groups within the business community: leaders in the human resources arena who desire an educated workforce and those focused on fiscal matters who work to ensure the business tax bill is low.  He only sees those concerned about tax issues engaged, harboring skepticism that any property tax relief will be long-lasting.  He emphasized the importance of educating people on taxes, and thought a commission could help identify what changes need to made to create a fair tax structure. 
 
Ill. Sen. Rick Winkel (R-Champaign) reflected on the lessons learned from his work on crafting and pushing forward school funding legislation (including SB 1484 and HB 755) in the 94th General Assembly. He stated the need for a bipartisan, multi-region coalition to see legislation pass. Without gubernatorial support, a veto-proof majority would be necessary, and property tax relief is an essential component to attract support from the Republican side of the aisle and farming communities downstate. When asked to comment on the limited support to HB755, he cited the May 18, 2005 Chicago Tribune article analyzing the cost implications for taxpayers as hindering his ability to rally more votes at a critical time.
 
Arne Duncan, CEO of Chicago Public Schools, commented “children do not have a union; they need to have a voice.”  Duncan shared observations from his recent bus tour to advocate for school funding reform.  He found school districts all around the state “in the same state of crisis,” with caring administrators forced to make decisions they know are hurting their school programs - like increasing class size, closing successful schools, cutting extracurricular activities, and canceling summer school - because of funding. He identified the problem as a social justice and civil rights issue, citing the need for parents, students and religious leaders to head this effort.
 
The panelists cited the importance of education funding reform as a part of the upcoming gubernatorial election.  Sen. Winkel wanted to see the gubernatorial candidates debate the issue, acknowledge it as a problem, and identify viable solutions. Mike Lawrence reiterated real education funding reform could not be tackled under a no-tax pledge.  He challenged the media to pin down candidates who claim they are for school funding reform but without new taxes, calling on the media to “expose the fallacy and duplicity in what they are saying.”
 
A challenge also came from audience member Timuel Black, who called on fellow attendees to communicate with their legislators that they want school funding reform and will hold their legislators accountable.  He stated the real choice was between preventative and reactive spending: we can pay for better education or more jails.  Panelists agreed, with Mr. Johnson encouraging advocates to emotionalize and put a face on the issue.

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