The deal Republicans should make on school funding in Illinois

Dan Proft Mar. 2, 2008, 3:00am


A Democrat Governor proposes tax cuts, however fleeting, and Republican legislative leaders respond by asking, "How's he going to pay for them?"

These are confusing times to be a Republican in Illinois. When they are not letting the Democrats in charge off the hook for managing massive public systems into DEFCON 1 core meltdowns or for creating open-ended entitlement programs, they are rejecting tax cuts.

Nevertheless and in spite of themselves, Republicans will be presented this year with yet another opportunity to reconfigure the political balance of power in Illinois and reestablish their electoral relevance.

Against the backdrop of Governor Blagojevich's trivial, half-hearted "State of the State Address," House Speaker Michael Madigan allowed House Bill 750 to begin slithering its way though the General Assembly once again.

HB 750 is the legislative Rasputin of the Democrat-controlled General Assembly, which proposes to permanently increase the state income tax by 66% in exchange for temporary property tax relief.

Where would the net increase in state revenue go? Say it with me: to fund education.

And herein lies the Republican opportunity.

Rather than getting caught in the false debate about how much money for schools is enough, Republicans should tell Democrats to name their price. Increase the foundation level by 5%? 10%? 50%? Fine. Whatever.

But Republicans must hold fast to one stipulation in return for their blank check on funding.

For the City of Chicago, those dollars will no longer be attached to the Chicago Public Schools (CPS). Those dollars will be attached to the individual CPS students so that their parents may send them to the school of their choosing, public or private, within the city.

This is something that Republicans as well as common-sense Independents and Democrats from Zion to Cairo can get behind because everybody gets it when it comes to the importance of their children's education.

Illinois families understand that today more than ever education is the gateway to opportunity.

Illinois families are aware of the increasing earning gap between college grads and non-college grads in our global, digital economy.

Illinois families have come to learn what a lot of Chicago families know from experience, which is the troubling reality that only 6 out of every 100 freshmen who entered a Chicago public high school this past September will earn a bachelor's degree (source: Consortium on Chicago School Research). 6 in 100.

Illinois families also intuitively comprehend that no matter where you live, when a system responsible for educating 400,000 children every year fails the overwhelming majority of those children every year, as CPS does, we all pay.

So, knowing all that we know, isn't a shame what we allow to occur in Chicago? No, actually, isn't it a crime?

In 2006, CPS chief Arne Duncan told the Chicago Tribune, "When students are unprepared for college or the world of work, they are condemned to social failure. We are doing everything we can to dramatically change the high school experience for our teenagers."

I do not know who the "we" are and I do not much care. Even were I to attribute the best of intentions to him, CPS will never dramatically change itself. As we have seen, doing everything they can is simply not good enough.

That is why the Illinois General Assembly stepped in to restructure CPS in 1995. It was a genuine attempt but it addressed form to the exclusion of function and so fell short of the overhaul required.

To summarize, we know CPS is an abysmal failure.

We know that we will all be held to account, morally and financially, for that failure.

We know that there is precedent for the General Assembly summoning its collective will to intervene.

We know that the once-proud Illinois Republican Party, a party founded upon the idea of extending opportunity to the disenfranchised, is in dire need of reintroducing itself to the Illinois electorate with policy solutions that embody that noble spirit.

Most importantly, we know that low-income children--of all races but disproportionately minority children--are getting a raw deal. It is not fair, it is not right and, with a smidge of political courage, it is eminently fixable

Our neighbors to the north in Milwaukee figured this out 17 years ago when they launched their opportunity scholarship program. Our neighbors to the east in Cleveland took the defense of their program all the way to the Supreme Court in 2002 and won.

And if I might paraphrase a sentiment from the late, great Ray Charles, letting the market "do what it do (baby)" has given us a national landscape where 13 states operate 21 distinct choice programs, some specifically tailored to students with particular challenges as is the scholarship program in Ohio for autistic children and as is the McKay Scholarship Program in Florida for special needs children.

I have previously and accurately described the leadership (to the extent there is evidence of such) of the Republican Party in Illinois as gelatinous invertebrates.

If ever there was a time to grow a spine, this is it.

The degree to which the Illinois GOP makes itself about the aspirations of low-to-middle-income families trapped in a discredited edu-ocracy that is robbing their children of their futures and stands up for now-proven market-oriented reforms is the degree to which Illinois will once again be a two-party state.

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Organizations in this Story

Illinois General Assembly
301 S 2nd Street
Springfield, IL 62707

City of Chicago
121 N LaSalle St
Chicago, IL 60602

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