Kadner: Chico says state dead last in support for education
Phil Kadner email@example.com | (708) 633-6787 August 10, 2012 8:06PM
Updated: September 13, 2012 6:18AM
Gery Chico was telling me how Illinois now ranks dead last, 50th out of 50 states, in the share it pays for public education.
“We’re at about 25 or 26 percent, which means that about 75 cents out of every public education dollar is now coming from other sources, mostly from property taxes,” Chico said.
As chairman of the Illinois Board of Education, Chico knows better than most that this state is failing public schoolchildren. He has also served as school board president for the Chicago Public Schools from 1995 to 2001, board president for the City Colleges of Chicago and as chief of staff to Mayor Richard M. Daley.
Chico is now promoting Gov. Pat Quinn’s plan to shift pension funding for downstate and suburban teachers from the state treasury to local school districts.
“If we don’t do this, in two years the state will be spending more money on the teachers’ pension fund that it spends on education funding,” he said,
That may be true, but it will also mean less money for children in suburban and downstate classrooms, and Chico knows that.
“Since 2008 through June 30 of this year, the state has cut $870 million in funding for public education,” he said. “That trend can’t continue. And it’s being caused by the state’s budget problems, which are in large part due to the Teachers’ Retirement System.
“We’ve cut $80 million alone from early childhood education, and that has a devastating impact on the futures of children.” Chico said. “That’s 18,000 kids we can’t serve. I’m really, really discouraged by our failure to help these kids. It’s very depressing.”
Quinn and Chico contend that shifting the pension funding will somehow help those children, but I don’t see any proof of that.
There’s no guarantee that if Illinois shifts its cost for teacher pensions to school districts that the state will increase public school funding by a like amount. Nobody can guarantee that the Legislature won’t cut general state aid for education again, even if it frees up the millions of dollars in pension payments.
Chico responds that one thing is clear — if pension reform doesn’t get done, there will be even steeper cuts in state education funds and that will drive property tax bills way up and cause cuts in education programs.
Quinn is proposing that the pension cost shift take place over 12 years instead of the four previously suggested — allowing local school districts more time to absorb the cost and negotiate new contracts with teachers’ unions. The implication is that the unions will be willing to make wage and benefit concessions. I’ve seen little evidence of that in the past.
With property values decreasing, the property tax increasing, homes being foreclosed, businesses shutting their doors and people losing their jobs or taking pay cuts, school districts are going to be facing tough times ahead whether or not there’s a shift in pension funding.
Quinn and his staff have claimed that many school districts have built up large financial reserves, but Chico knows better.
“Yes, there are some districts that have built up reserves, but they will vanish very quickly if the state continues to cut its share of education funding,” he said.
I contend that they could vanish as well if the state shifts pension funding to the districts.
And even with a state mandate that school districts build a reserve fund, most school districts, including many in the Southland, have been unable to do so.
I’ve known Chico for years, and he understands that for nearly two decades education activists have been complaining about Illinois’ inadequate and inequitable school funding formula. Yet repeated attempts to alter the formula have failed.
“The state’s Constitution mandates that state government be responsible for funding public education,” Chico said. “That’s the public’s will as expressed in the Constitution. And I believe that can still happen.
“Listen, people once said Medicaid reform could never happen and it has. They said we couldn’t reform the pension system, and we’re on our way to accomplishing that.
“The media is largely responsible for exposing the problems with pensions in this state and that has driven the move for pension reform. The news media should play the same role in informing the public about school funding.”
All I see coming are more cuts to education funding and higher tax bills. Thank goodness everyone involved says their top priority remains the children.
Hard to imagine how this state would finance its schools if it wasn’t.