It Reminded Me of Old Times

It reminded me of old times.

The CEO of Chicago Public Schools standing up in a forum like the City Club sounding off forcefully on the need for fundamental school funding reform in the state of Illinois took my mind nostalgically back to the years I served as the Field Director and Deputy Campaign Manager of A+ Illinois, a coalition of 500 organizations and 50,000 people across the state fighting for a new school funding formula.

In those days, our coalition was strong and a very large part focused on this most critical need in our state. The CEO’s speech reminded me of the chorus of “Amens” that would most assuredly have rung out had it been given in 2005, 06 or 07. Regardless of how the CEO disagreed on tactics like boycotting schools, there would have been an “Amen” from the Reverend (and then Senator) James T. Meeks. Even though they would have been fresh out of a vigorous debate over the need for and approach to pension reform, there would have been “Amens” from the Chamber of Commerce and the Illinois Education Association. And in spite of the deep divide of the merits of the districts charter school strategy, there would have been “Amens” from the Illinois Network of Charter Schools and the Chicago Teachers Union.

That was a great coalition. We pulled and pushed and fought for a few years, but somehow Springfield was able to hold on to the purse. They were able to convince us that school funding reform was not realistic. That it was not even possible. They told us to fix things first. Fix the quality of our schools, fix the transparency of our budget, and fix our teacher contract. They were successful at getting us to take our eyes off the prize; to focus on our differences rather than the one issue that unites us all. 

Here’s a fact: if we had overhauled our funding formula a decade ago, our problems would not be nearly as severe as they are now. We would surely have challenges, but we probably wouldn’t be at the “breaking point” that the CEO so accurately described yesterday.

And here’s a thought: perhaps if resources were not so scarce, some of our disagreements would not be so vitriolic. Because of the severe lack of resources, everything is life or death. Everything is zero sum. Rational compromise doesn’t amount to much. Only total abdication of principle and position stands to solve any problem. There is plenty of time to fight over who gets what slice of the pie in Chicago. But, we can all agree that the city deserves a larger pie. 

I, for one, hope that we can once again put our differences on the back burner and demand that Springfield join the hard hit tax payers of Chicago and do their fair share to provide adequate resources for the districts that need it most.

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Chris Butler is first a husband and a dad. He has been involved across the spectrum of public engagement activities and has worked with a number of diverse constituencies in urban and suburban communities. He has also been involved in several political campaigns including his service as a youth and young adult coordinator for Barack Obama’s primary bid for U.S. Senate. Chris worked as deputy campaign manager and field director for A+ Illinois where he developed a strong, statewide field operation including over 500 organizations and 50,000 individuals around the state working to bring adequacy and equity to Illinois’ school funding system and as the director of advocacy and outreach at New Schools for Chicago, a leader in school reform in Chicago. Chris is a 2006 graduate of the Ministry Training Institute and holds a degree in civic and political engagement from Northeastern Illinois University.