Image courtesy Ashlee Rezin, Chicago Sun-Times
This column first appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times on March 26, 2018.
The primaries have come and gone. But a critical political issue remains: Which of the candidates for governor will put kids first and revamp our state’s broken school funding system?
This situation has, for me, brought back memories of school reform from the 1990s. I started my career in government, and during seven years in the mayor’s office, I learned that you can’t predict when a crisis will hit–but you need to be ready.
As voters make their final decision on the governorship, the stakes are high.
One example of crisis begetting historic change was the brinkmanship over opening schools on time in 1993, a bizarre ritual that had occurred in 17 of the prior 19 years. I was there for the all-night negotiations between the Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Teachers Union, fueled by M&Ms and too much caffeine.
Only later did I understand this as a turning point.
When Mayor Richard M.Daley was re-elected in April 1995, Governor Jim Edgar, House Speaker Lee Daniels and Senate President Pate Philip comprised a Republican triumvirate who were impatient with the status quo on education. In May 1995, they enacted legislation that gave real control of CPS to Mayor Daley. He was ready, quietly bargaining for budget and labor negotiating flexibility and quickly naming a five-member board and senior staff, including me as the interim chief of staff. For 10 months, I was part of rapid-fire negotiations of a four-year labor contract, the first capital investment following years of junk-bond status, and an ambitious push to invest in teachers and principals.
As president of the Metropolitan Planning Council, I have seen additional education victories. Illinois has defined the cost per student of a basic education (or “foundation level”), and secured state capital funding for facilities. But the bigger changes needed have been elusive.
Disparities in funding directly correlate with disparities in achievement that, in turn, reinforce Chicago’s economic divide.
So as voters make their final decision on the governorship, the stakes are high. Legislators from both sides of the aisle, as well as Governor Rauner, have been quick to claim credit for a law passed last summer that prioritizes increased funding for higher-poverty schools.
For now, that’s just a promise. The candidates we elect will have to deliver the goods. And it’s a heavy lift, since Illinois currently ranks 49th in state support of public schools. On average, other states provide half of school funding. Illinois provides just a quarter.
Our poorest kids shoulder the greatest burden. Disparities in funding directly correlate with disparities in achievement that, in turn, reinforce Chicago’s economic divide. In fourth grade, 20percent of low-income students are proficient in reading, compared to 55 percent of their wealthier peers, according to a 2017 analysis by Advance Illinois. Racial disparities are also evident: 47 percent of white fourth-graders are reading-proficient in 4th grade, compared to 31 percent of Latinos and 16 percent of Black students.
These early achievement gaps hinder high school and college graduation. The 2017 Cost of Segregation study by MPC and the Urban Institute found that if Chicago were at the national median for racial and economic segregation, 83,000 more people in our region would earn bachelor’s degrees. Today, only 12 percent of Latinos and 20 percent of African-Americans do so, compared to 44 percent of whites. The lifetime earnings gap for someone with a bachelor’s degree versus a high school diploma is over $1 million. Just five years at a higher income can help a family save enough for a down payment on a home.
Bold action to support underfunded schools is one of the smartest strategies available to get Illinois’ economic growth back on track. Has your candidate for governor made that commitment?