SPRINGFIELD — Republicans on Wednesday announced a plan to put the financially floundering Chicago Public Schools system under state control and open the option of bankruptcy as a possible financial solution.
Democratic response was swift, in opposition and included Senate President John Cullerton saying, “This is not going to happen.”
Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno and House GOP Leader Jim Durkin unveiled the plan in Chicago, saying the CPS crisis was only deepening and both students and taxpayers deserve better.
“What we are offering is a lifeline,” Radogno said. “We’re filing legislation that paves the way for a state-created independent authority to assume control over the Chicago Public Schools system.”
The Republicans said the school system, already saddled with crushing debt that has led to junk-bond credit ranking, is seeking a state bailout of nearly $500 million and preparing to take on new debt of about $800 million — all while facing the prospect of layoffs and a possible teachers’ strike.
“Chicago continues to dig a financial hole deeper and deeper, and it’s in constant crisis,” Radogno said. “That crisis always ends up for a plea for additional money for Chicago at the expense of school districts in the suburban and downstate communities.”
“It has to end,” she said. “The taxpayers and the children of the city’s schools deserve better.”
The GOP’s plan would replace the Chicago Public Schools board with an “independent authority” appointed by the Illinois state superintendent of schools. That independent authority would have control until the state board determines CPS is no longer in financial peril.
Durkin said the move would be consistent with the law applicable to all other public school districts in Illinois.
“The time has come where they need to be held accountable, just as (are) my school district, your school district and every school district from southern Illinois to the northwest part of the state,” he said.
The Republicans said they are not trying to mandate bankruptcy for Chicago’s school system. They also said they are not trying to free public money for charter schools, as was argued by some opponents.
The GOP leaders said they are trying to save but not bail out Chicago schools, and they say their legislation would make clear the state is not on the hook for Chicago schools’ debt.
Rep. Ron Sandack, R-Downers Grove, also said Chapter 9 bankruptcy — which would require enabling legislation by the General Assembly — would not be a bailout should the independent board appointed by the state superintendent choose to pursue reorganization under bankruptcy law.
“It’s not a bailout to restructure debt,” said Sandack, an attorney with financial law experience. “It’s not a bailout to look at contacts (in a bankruptcy), try to renegotiate them and make them far more favorable to taxpayers. it’s not a bailout to actually construct a fiscally and financially responsible plan to put the school system …. in a better place than it is.”
Cullerton criticized the plan.
“It’s mean-spirited and evidence of their total lack of knowledge of the real problems facing Chicago Public Schools,” the Chicago Democrat said in written statement. “The unfair treatment of pension systems by the state is the immediate cause of CPS’ financial problem,” Cullerton said.
“That situation ought to be addressed rather than promoting this far-fetched notion that the state is somehow in the position to take over Chicago schools,” Cullerton said. “This ridiculous idea only serves as a distraction from the state’s problems that these two state leaders should be focusing on.”
House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, also criticized the plan and attributed it to Rauner, whom the speaker said was trying — among other things — to harm job security for teachers and free state money in an attempt to establish more charter schools.
“Taking one unelected school board appointed by the mayor and allowing it to become a board of unelected and unaccountable bureaucrats appointed by Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner is not a step in the right direction,” the speaker said in a news release.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a Democrat, also opposes the plan.
““If the governor was serious about helping Chicago students, he should start by proposing—and passing—a budget that fully funds education and treats CPS students like every other child in the state,” spokeswoman Kelley Quinn said in a statement.
Forrest Claypool, CEO of Chicago Public Schools also spoke out against the plan, as did Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teacher’s Union. They called it a sideshow or “political theater” intended to deflect attention from the state’s own heavy debt, lack of a state budget and stalled contract negotiations.
Rauner, in his own Chicago press appearance on Wednesday, argued Chicago Democrats are bucking calls for reform and simply asking the state to cover part of the city’s tab, which he and other Republicans say has been inflated by more than a decade of bad decisions on Chicago’s part.
“The mayor has failed on this,” Rauner said. “He’s failed on public safety. He’s failed on schools. He’s failed on jobs in the neighborhoods. He’s failed on taxes. He’s failed on reform. And I’m tired of it. We need to take action."