Kadner: Chico pleads for more school funds
By Phil Kadner firstname.lastname@example.org May 20, 2013 10:40PM
Updated: June 22, 2013 6:11AM
I laughed out loud when Gery Chico, chairman of the Illinois State Board of Education, told me he wants the Legislature to restore about $860 million cut from public school funding since 2009.
Chico quickly responded to my outburst by explaining why he believes this is possible — despite the governor’s proposal to cut $310 million more from the state education budget this year.
If a gambling expansion bill is passed, Chico wants the new revenue generated allocated to education. If teacher pension reform is approved, he wants some of the savings targeted for schools. And he wants new state revenue growth earmarked for public education as well.
“It can be done,” Chico told me during a telephone call Monday. “We (state school board) believe it is realistic.”
I don’t believe it is a realistic goal because I believe elected officials in this state are vehemently anti-public education.
That’s the fact based on legislative history — although every governor in the past 10 years, along with nearly every state senator and representative, has declared themselves to be a champion of public schoolchildren.
That’s campaign rhetoric.
The fact is that Illinois ranks dead last in the nation in the share of school funding that it shoulders. Illinois funds about 28 percent of the cost of public education compared with a national average of 43.5 percent for all other states.
As a result, the property tax has become the primary source of public school financing in Illinois, providing about 60 percent of the average school district’s revenue.
Since 2009, the state has cut $320 million in general state aid to schools, a 7 percent reduction.
It has cut $133.7 million, or 39.7 percent, from the transportation budget.
It has trimmed $80 million from early childhood education, a 21 percent reduction. And it has reduced funds for bilingual education by $12.3 million.
Elected officials claim the cuts were unavoidable due to the state’s terrible financial condition.
But more than 25 years ago, the state school superintendent warned that unless Illinois changed its method of funding public education, there would be a financial crisis.
Governors and state legislators ignored that warning and many that would follow.
They simply didn’t feel responsible for public education because they had shifted the responsibility and the burden onto the backs of local property taxpayers. That shift allowed legislators to spend your tax dollars on other things down in Springfield.
But more important, it allowed the state’s elected officials to shift the focus of citizen complaints onto local school districts.
It was the district’s fault if your property tax bill went up and if school programs were cut. Legislators and governors could claim that none of it was their fault.
And at the same time, they publicly complained about the quality of public education, passing new mandates onto the public schools.
As I’ve repeatedly noted in this space, Article X of the Illinois Constitution gives state government the “primary responsibility for financing the system of public education.” That’s one of the few duties of state government mandated in the constitution.
Chico called me because he would like the public to pressure the Illinois House into restoring the $300 million that Gov. Pat Quinn wants to cut from the education budget.
Members of the Senate have indicated they feel the cuts are too stiff.
The Legislature is expected to pass a new state budget in the waning days of the current session, which is set to adjourn at month’s end.
If there is pension reform, gambling expansion, etc., Chico wants the money earmarked for education.
And while the education budget cuts are proposed by Quinn, Chico (a Quinn appointee) believes the governor to be pro-education.
This time I managed to stifle my laugh. Quinn has cut the education budget repeatedly and threatened even bigger cuts.
As a result of the state’s neglect of education funding, Illinois has a caste system in its public schools.
Children in wealthy areas get a top-notch education. Children from poorer areas get something far less.
To remedy the situation, there’s increasing pressure to create more charter schools to give poor students a greater choice, or even a voucher program,
None of this is aimed at students in Wilmette, New Lenox or Orland Park.
The idea is to create an experimental system of private schools in poorer communities and use the students there as guinea pigs.
If some of them fair better, great. If they don’t, well, they likely would have failed in underfunded public schools anyway so there’s no real loss.
That’s basically the attitude of many of our state lawmakers.
As for downstate and suburban areas where citizens still support their public schools, their property tax bills will just keep going up until they finally demand cuts in education to save their homes and businesses.
I believe that’s the message Chico and other public education advocates should be carrying to the people.
There is an ongoing, undeclared war on public education in this state.
Most people still believe in their local schools. Their property value depends significantly on the quality of their school districts.
That’s why most families, who have a choice, decide to move into a community.
But this erosion of state support for education will ultimately challenge even the best school districts and communities.
And your legislators are doing nothing to stop it.