Let’s fix school funding before we talk about a state takeover

Image from Illinois school funding reform bill kicks into high gear http://ow.ly/Xl6BB

Image from Illinois school funding reform bill kicks into high gear http://ow.ly/Xl6BB

Today in Chicago the two leaders of the Republican Legislative Caucuses (Senator Christine Rodogno and Representative Jim Durkin) introduced a plan to allow Chicago Public Schools to declare bankruptcy and thereby enter a form of state receivership in which the Illinois State Board of Education comes in and takes over the management of the school district. Shortly after the announcement, Republican Governor Bruce Rauner came out in strong support of the plan.

I have to say that I am not 100% opposed to the idea of somebody “taking over” the Chicago Public Schools. The district is very much in need of competent, visionary leadership. But, this proposal seems rushed and ignores a basic and central issue in the conversation: state funding.

The basic thought here is that since CPS cannot get its financial house in order, that the district should declare itself bankrupt and turn itself over to the control of the Illinois State Board of Education. There is already a law on the books that allows other school districts in the state to obtain bankruptcy protections, but Chicago is excluded. So, the Republican leaders suggest that we just treat Chicago Public Schools like every other school district in the state and let the district file for bankruptcy. Unfortunately, there is a huge misrepresentation involved with how the trio of state leaders presents this case.

The bankruptcy proposal completely ignores the fact that one of the biggest contributing factors to the fiscal crisis in CPS is the inequitable state funding scheme that relies too much on property taxes and leaves high poverty districts like Chicago with the sad choice between exorbitantly high property tax rates or woefully underfunded schools. Sure, CPS has mismanaged the pension fund and made some poor investment decisions. Maybe the district has even made promises in the union contract that it didn’t have the financial wherewithal to uphold. But, one can’t accurately judge the impact of any of those things when the fact remains that Illinois contributes a smaller share to total P-12 funding than any other state.

This is the reality that gives the power of reason to the call from Chicago Schools CEO Forrest Claypool for CPS to receive a 20% share of state funding since it educates 20% of the state’s children. That’s a slightly simplified approach to funding equity, but it gets after the point. For Republican legislators to cast this “equity” proposal as a “bailout” is a little disingenuous. Illinois hasn’t had an equitable funding system for a long time. If a step toward equity would allow Claypool to resolve the problems facing CPS (as he suggests it would), then he deserves a shot.

Maybe it is true that even with a fair funding scheme the pension problem would be too great. CPS might be too given to risky investments and corruption to thrive financially. Maybe at the end of the day, the Mayor and his team does get bullied by the Chicago Teachers Union at the bargaining table and end up giving away the kitchen sink. But, we don’t know for sure. We can’t know for sure until we put first things first.

All of our state leaders, Democrats and Republicans alike, need to get together and develop an equitable approach to short-term funding and a long-term solution that would increase the overall state share of funding for public schools. And let’s leave the “takeover” conversation for another day.

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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.