Will Illinois’ real education governor please step forward?
Although the two major-party candidates in this year's historically expensive campaign for governor have both pledged to be the "education governor," Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and Democratic challenger JB Pritzker are on opposite sides of key education issues, particularly those involving charter school expansion and private school funding.
For those looking beyond the state’s crippling financial issues for reasons to favor one candidate over the other, education provides some clear distinctions.
There’s the ultra-political. Should Chicago have an elected school board? Pritzker says yes. Rauner says no.
Then, there’s the highly controversial. Should a private school tax credit scholarship program that most public education supporters oppose be expanded? Rauner says yes. Pritzker says no.
The candidates veer back into the same lane when it comes to investing more in public education and addressing widespread funding inequities in school districts across the state. But even then, education leaders say, they speak different languages when it comes to how that will happen.
"This election is going to have a big impact on public education in Illinois," said Brian Harris, president of the state's Large Unit District Association. "Both Pritzker and Rauner — they both say they want to be the education governor, but they have a different perspective on it."
Most education leaders shied away from endorsing. Their organizations — save the Illinois Education Association — will not make official declarations or contributions in the race despite their agreement that much is a stake.
"Our position on both candidates is that we would hope that they would provide low-income kids with the same opportunities that they themselves have had or their children have had," said Myles Mendoza, president of Empower Illinois, a statewide scholarship granting organization that administers the tax-credit scholarship program. "They are both of incredible means, able to move into a neighborhood where there is a high-quality public option or afford to attend private school. We want the same for low-income kids."
The state's $8 billion K-12 public school system serves 2 million students and employs 130,000 teachers.
More than half of those students attend districts that belong to Harris’ large district association, including those in Peoria, Springfield and Rockford.
The organization advocates for downstate schools and policies that support their needs. In recent years, that’s meant funding reform.
After several years of debate, it finally happened in 2017 with the adoption of the state’s evidence-based funding formula, which funnels more state money to districts with greater financial needs and fewer means to raise revenue locally.
The changes were historic and resulted in an additional $400 million in funding for public schools. It happened under Rauner’s watch, but only after years of budget gridlock.
"That created quite a bite of unforeseen drama and a lot of hardships on school districts," said Harris, superintendent of the Barrington School District. "I think (Rauner) struggled with how to be a leader in the big picture. You can’t not have a budget. … That was an unfortunate, significant downside to his four years."
Like Harris, Ben Schwarm, deputy executive director of the Illinois Association of School Boards, points to evidence-based funding as a game-changer.
"We have to make sure that this new formula is properly funded," Schwarm said. "We need to make sure it’s appropriated, and there is follow-through."
While the ongoing public debate over education and the governor's race focuses heavily on the major-party candidates, there are two other candidates in the field: Libertarian Grayson “Kash” Jackson and the Conservative Party's Sam McCann.
Jackson says on his website that he supports locally funded public schools, tax credits for donations and more options within public and private education through increased choice and competition.
McCann does not address education on his site. He states he wishes to restore economic liberty and create a plan that works to reduce the tax burden on hardworking families and small businesses.
Charters, private schools
As happy as most education leaders were with the adoption of evidence-based funding, they were equally disappointed with the creation of a new private school tax-credit scholarship program — an initiative on which Pritzker and Rauner strongly disagree.
The program was part of a compromise that helped usher in funding reform. It gives tax breaks to residents who donate to private schools and offers scholarships to low-income families to send their children to private schools.
Empower’s Mendoza says the program is part of the state’s overall school funding solution. Empower is the largest scholarship granting organization for the state’s $40 million program. It awarded scholarships to private schools to more than 4,000 students this fall.
"My hope is that Illinois doesn’t go the way of the nation in becoming this tribal, hyperpartisan environment and sticks with the agreement around school finance reform," Mendoza said. "We were part of the effort to equalize funding throughout the state."
Empower also places a high priority on supporting the creation and expansion of high-quality charter schools, yet another issue that divides Rauner and Pritzker.
Rauner has been a vocal proponent of school choice and supportive of efforts to expand charter school options in the state. Pritzker believes adequate public school funding should come first.
While education leaders like Harris and Schwarm believe charters fill a specific and somewhat limited role in the state’s education landscape, leaders like Mendoza believe choice will increase quality and access.
"We’re in support of expansion of high-quality schools — public, private or charter," Mendoza said. "As long as it’s wanted by the community, we are supportive of the right to choose."
Most important issue
The Illinois Education Association is firmly in Prtizker’s camp.
President Kathi Griffin said the organization is bipartisan and supports candidates from both sides of the aisle. Not in this race.
"We sent a questionnaire to each candidate. Gov. Rauner did not complete the questionnaire. He chose not to talk to educators," Griffin said. "In this case, it was without a doubt. JB’s background is amazingly pro-child."
To Griffin, there is no question who the "education governor" is. And who it is not.
"(Rauner) held the budget hostage. He decimated higher education in our state. He vetoed the historic school funding bill twice," she said. "The budget crisis and the impact that had on education and social services hurt our most vulnerable citizens of our state — our children."
While the budget crisis was difficult and painful, Rockford School Superintendent Ehren Jarrett prefers to focus on the future.
"This gubernatorial race is an opportunity to continue in the new direction that we set in rectifying our state's funding equity issue," Jarrett said. "A long-range, long-term focus on evidence-based funding is one big issue for me and the most important issue."
Rockford learned in April that it would be receiving $8.6 million more from the state under the new formula, which takes into account students' needs and available resources. Based on the new formula, Rockford’s funding adequacy level was set at 60 percent. Peoria Public Schools will see its General State Aid increase about $2.4 million as a result of the new formula with an adequacy level at 66 percent.
The goal is get every district in the state to 90 percent. The estimated cost is $7 billion.
"My concern is that without addressing revenue in a smart way, and addressing pension reform, we will run out of dollars to fund evidence-based funding," Jarrett said. "I don’t think any candidate is going to be against evidence-based funding. I think where the problem is going to be is whether we can do the other political things that need to be done to fund evidence-based funding."
Corina Curry: 815-987-1371; firstname.lastname@example.org; @corinacurry