Kadner: Cutting taxes will hurt schools, Vallas says
“If you don’t have adequate funding, schools will suffer. Funding does matter.”
That’s Paul Vallas, the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, making a pitch for improving education in Illinois.
Vallas is the former chief executive of the Chicago Public Schools, former superintendent of the Recovery School District in New Orleans, former CEO of the Philadelphia public schools and former superintendent of the Bridgeport school system in Connecticut.
On Thursday, we talked over coffee at Lumes Pancake House in Palos Heights, a few blocks from the Vallas family home.
“This candidate has proposed nothing of substance other than the fact he’s going to reduce (tax) rates,” Vallas said, referring to the Republican candidate for governor, Bruce Rauner. “(His message is) if you cut the general funds by billions of dollars everything is magically going to be fine.”
Vallas quickly launches into a dissertation on state finances.
“You’ve got to understand that if you cut the budget by billions of dollars, over half the money in the general funds is mandated and the remaining half is discretionary.
“The mandated funds include things like pensions, bills, transfers to local governments, group health insurance, the Medicaid match, and if you cut those things you simply kick those costs down the road. The reason this state is in such bad financial shape is because that’s what the state has been doing for decades.
“The other half of the (state) budget is the discretionary budget. If you cut rates across the board, that’s what will take the hit. That’s veteran’s programs, aging, children and family services, public safety.
“Over half the discretionary budget is education. That means laying off teachers, increasing class sizes, deferring critical investment, and the consequences will be particularly felt in those poor (school) districts that do not have the resource base to compensate.
“It’s important to understand when the state doesn’t adequately fund its schools, two things happen, and they’re both bad. One is the quality of education services suffer, and (the second is) property taxes go up. That’s the law of nature. That’s gravity.
“At the end of the day, if you underfund your schools, you ultimately pay in the quality of the schools and ultimately property taxpayers have to foot the bill.”
Later, Vallas will apologize for not talking in “sound bites.” I try unsuccessfully to stifle a laugh.
Vallas is known for his rapid-fire speaking style, his passion, his willingness to butt heads with anyone to accomplish change.
Search his name on Google, and you will see dozens of testimonials hailing him as one of the nation’s leading school reformers.
You will also find an equal number criticizing him. Unions, politicians, parents, journalists have all taken their shots.
It’s easy to forget that Vallas is not a school administrator by training, In Connecticut, his lack of credentials became a bitter point of contention.
A graduate of Sandburg High School in Orland Park, he attended Moraine Valley Community College and graduated from Western Illinois University. He received a master’s degree there in political science and also earned a teaching certificate.
Vallas eventually went to work in Springfield in the 1980s as a legislative staffer and was mentored there by liberal political reformer Dawn Clark Netsch. He was appointed executive director of the nonpartisan Illinois Economic and Fiscal Commission, co-chaired by Netsch, and gained a reputation as a hard-nosed numbers guy.
After a series of scandals in the Chicago Department of Revenue, he was tabbed by Mayor Richard M. Daley as the agency’s director. With the Chicago school system in crisis, Daley later stunned nearly everyone by naming Vallas the first-ever chief executive officer of the public schools.
Vallas slashed administrative spending, championed effective school principals, banned social promotions of students, balanced budgets, launched a $2.65 billion construction program, ousted inept teachers and spent millions of dollars on summer and after-school programs to improve test scores.
After six years, the teachers union, some parents groups and even Daley turned on Vallas. It was a pattern that would often repeat itself throughout his career.
He ran for governor with very little funding and narrowly lost the Democratic Party primary election in 2002 to Rod Blagojevich.
Blagojevich eventually went to prison. Vallas went to Haiti. After Haiti’s 2010 earthquake, Vallas was recruited to build the school system there.
Vallas seems to enjoy getting in the middle of disastrous situations, so it should probably come as no shock that he has decided to return to Illinois politics, where the state has been teetering on the brink of financial ruin for years.
Although he has gained a reputation since leaving Chicago for embracing charter schools (one of Rauner’s pet projects), Vallas told me he simply believes in exploring every alternative to improve education.
He frequently apologizes to election campaign staffers present at our table for “going off message” as we debate more than 30 years of Illinois political history.
Vallas tells me how much he admires Quinn, both for his record of reform in the state and his “courage” to tell people the truth about the need to extend the temporary income tax hike beyond this year.
I reply that voters don’t want to hear talk about tax increases, even if they are needed.
“I don’t believe that,” Vallas said. “I think people want to hear the truth. I think they’re tired of campaign slogans. They want facts.
“Gov. Quinn has cut the state payroll, he has passed pension reform, he has a detailed plan for the next four years to balance the state’s budget.
“The other candidate has offered nothing substantive; not one specific program to do anything.”
Vallas is back on message.