First, some background. Illinois is ranked last in the nation when it comes to how much the state kicks in to public education. That's left a lot of districts up a creek without a paddle in the last few years. Shrinking state funding means schools either have to make cuts, or ask local voters for the okay to raise property taxes.
Already, legislators are brushing off a request from the state board of education for a billion dollar increase in state funding as unfeasible. So how does this all fit in with the governor's race? Basically, the Republican gubernatorial candidates are in a tricky position.
All of them have said Illinois needs to spend more on education, but all of them have also called for cuts in taxes and spending. What's a candidate to do?
State Senator Kirk Dillard says he can find the money for schools in two places: First, he'd oversee a scrubbing of the rolls for Medicaid, the state's healthcare program for the poor. As a suburban lawmaker, Dillard is from Hinsdale, he also laments Chicago's weighty presence in state government, which he says gives city schools a disproportionate funding advantage.
"This one-city control of state government has manipulated the general state aid formula for schools and moved about $1 billion out of downstate and suburban schools and to the Chicago Public Schools," says Dillard.
Many lawmakers, Republicans and Democrats, have called for CPS to be funded the same as the state's other eight hundred sixty districts. Matt Vanover, deputy superintendent of the state's school board, says the agency would be open to it.
"There has been a lot of talk about changing that formula. We've seen lot of demographics change and the population within the city change considerably," says Vanover.
Vanover is also the Board's spokesman, but his job could be in jeopardy under Senator Bill Brady's plan. Brady wants to eliminate the Board of Education. He's been campaigning on that promise for years. He says removing the red tape will give schools more local control.
"One of the reasons I will elminate the board of education is to bring responsibility for an education overhaul that meets the interest of the students, based on what parents and teachers think rather than bureaucrats," says Brady.
Brady also says getting rid of the board will save a substantial amount of money, but that claim mystifies many, including Vanover.
"Less than one-third of one percent is what is used for administrative funding for the employees ... that actively go out and implement the Board's mission," say Vanover.
As for state treasurer Dan Rutherford, he says the best way to improve education in Illinois is to start at the very beginning, literally. He says Illinois needs more funding for pre-kindergarten programs. "It's a business decision. It's a good investment to help that student, young person, be prepared to go into elementary and move on forward," says Rutherford.
Rutherford also says he's open to expanding the state's sales tax to bring in more money for schools. Like the treasurer, venture capitalist Bruce Rauner says he puts a high value on pre-kindergarten programs. His wife is CEO of an "Ounce of Prevention," an advocacy group that lobbies for, among other things, early childhood education. Bruce Rauner has played up that history of education advocacy throughout his campaign.
"My wife and I have been committed to school reform in Chicago for decades. And both with our time, and with our financial resources, we believe all parents should be entitled to school choice, and we've been driving that through charter schools, vouchers, merit pay for great teachers," says Rauner.
Charter schools, which the Rauners champion, are often controversial. Charters are schools that use public funds, but are run by private companies. Critics say it leaves students in the very poorest schools with even less resources than before.
Rauner is also looking to diminish the power of government unions, including those that represent teachers. He says public sector unions have too much power in negotiating contracts with the state. Union leaders, however, say their organizations serve a larger purpose than protecting salaries. They advocate for policies like smaller class sizes and school safety, and play a role in curriculum development.
The two major teachers' unions in Illinois see Rauner as a threat to the state's education system, so they've thrown their support and money behind Dillard. Next week at the polls, voters will decide who makes the grade.