Testing the Candidates

Rauner and Pritzker are at odds over most education issues — but agree on this one point

PHOTO: Courtesy of WBEZ
Democratic candidate J.B. Pritzker, left, and Gov. Bruce Rauner talked education policy with Chalkbeat Chicago and WBEZ education for the series Testing the Candidates.

Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner would veto a bill to restore an elected school board in Chicago, while his Democratic challenger J.B. Pritzker would sign it.

Rauner would extend the reach of a controversial $100 million tax credit scholarship “to a billion” dollars if he could, while Pritzker would curtail the new program, which diverts public tax dollars to tuition at private schools for some 5,600 Illinois students.  

But plowing more money into public education — from early childhood through college — came up as a rare point of agreement in back-to-back candidate conversations Chalkbeat Chicago conducted in partnership with WBEZ 91.5 FM.

Click on the audio below to hear each candidate explain his position on some key education issues facing the state.

When it comes to K-12 funding, predictably, Rauner and Pritzker each told us that relying on property taxes isn’t the answer. Rauner said he’d look for a temporary freeze on property taxes in effort to “shock the system” while his opponent would roll them back.

But put simply, neither had an immediate solution to plugging the massive gap between the $8.4 billion Illinois spends on K-12 public schools and projections of what adequate school funding would cost. A 2017 overhaul in the formula Illinois uses to fund schools put the state on a 10-year path to closing the estimated $6.8 billion gap. But it’s never been clear how Illinois — which is staring at an even bigger backlog of bills from its two-year budget impasse — is supposed to free up more money.

Currently, 713 of Illinois’ nearly 850 districts are funded below the “adequacy targets” established in the formula, which tries to even the playing field for districts that don’t collect much through property taxes, or those like Chicago, Rockford, and Peoria that predominantly serve low-income students.

Rauner said he has added $400 million to early childhood education and K-12 schools this year, and plans to find additional funding for subsequent years by wringing enough savings from his revamp of the state’s Medicaid program. He said he’d also plug the gap by growing the state’s tax base through aggressive business recruitment.

After standing his ground during a rocky budget impasse and seeing his support wane, “what I’ve certainly learned is that change needs to be incremental,” Rauner told us.

“Every year we’re going to put hundreds of millions of dollars more into our education system. I’m reversing decades of damage, decades of inequitable funding, and the way to do it is a combination of making government more efficient and, most importantly, by getting our economy to grow faster. We can expand our tax base rather than our tax rates and have much more money.”

He said in a pre-interview questionnaire the state has already saved $500 million by revamping Medicaid; however, the office that manages the program says it can’t provide an estimate since the state isn’t even a year in. He did not elaborate on that point in the interview.

Pritzker, meanwhile, has traveled the state touting a progressive income tax that would wring more from wealthy residents and less from people in middle- and low-income brackets. But even if such a plan were to pass through the Legislature, it would require a state referendum — a process that would take until at least 2020.

In the short term, Pritzker said in the Chalkbeat/WBEZ interviews that he’d look to legalizing sports betting and recreational marijuana while working on a plan to reduce incarceration.

“You’d have to get some of those things passed in the first legislative session to see revenue,” he acknowledged. “But in order for us to change the way we fund schools, I want to remind you that, in the average state in the United States, about half the money comes from property taxes and about half comes from state taxes. But we’re at about 25 percent from the state and 75 percent from property taxes. We need to directionally head toward 50-50.”

Here’s what the candidates said about other key education topics.

School choice

The candidates’ diverging views on school choice include charters as well as the tax-credit scholarship program squeezed into the school funding bill last year without public debate. Rauner saying he’ll personally contribute “more and more” of his own millions to the program. A WBEZ report found that 28 percent of the students in the first wave to benefit from the bill were not considered low-income, as the program had been described.

That didn’t budge Rauner: “I’d like to have a billion-dollar program, but we’ve got to start somewhere,” he said. “We started with $100 million — let’s expand it every year. This is a great community effort to increase support for our low-income parents who deserve options.”

Pritzker, meanwhile, said he’d wind down the program and put a moratorium on charter growth, even though he supports the concept of “choice” in districts such as Chicago, where students can choose between neighborhood schools, test-in schools, magnets, and charters.

Asked if he would curtail the authority of a state charter commission established to work as an appellate body for denied proposals, he demurred, saying that there are good charter schools “worthy of support” but that adequate funding for district schools should come before “expanding the opportunity for people to start charters.”

This past spring, Rauner vetoed a bill that would have curbed the commission’s authority.

Teacher shortage

A new state report sounds the alarm over a dire teacher shortage, particularly in rural areas and in bilingual and special education.

Rauner said the answer to the teacher shortage is not raising salaries — he vetoed a bill that would have set a minimum teacher salary at $40,000 — but rather sending more state money that districts can use for raises if they choose.

“One size does not fit all,” said Rauner, who also pointed to his record on easing restrictions on out-of-state teachers coming into Illinois. “We cannot look at cost structure and teacher compensation in Chicago and compare it to a tiny rural district with a very low cost of living and very limited resources and say you have to pay what’s in Chicago.”

On the contrary, Pritzker said he’d support a minimum wage bill for teachers. He also confront the shortage issue by examining the state’s existing teacher-prep opportunities and investing more in higher education. He was mum on whether he’d support eliminating a basic-skills test for licensing — one idea that has recently resurfaced as state education leaders consider options for recruiting more mid-career candidates to classrooms.  

Early childhood education

Both candidates have deep ties to early childhood education efforts, with Rauner’s wife, Diana, steering the advocacy group Ounce of Prevention, and Pritzker supporting through his philanthropy the national Early Childhood Innovation Accelerator as well as Ounce of Prevention and the First Five Years Fund.

Rauner touted his record on raising early childhood funding and pushing for quality standards across the web of private and public providers who receive state dollars. Asked about a change in eligibility requirements that knocked tens of thousands of families off of public child care assistance programs, Rauner blamed the budget impasse and said, if elected, he’d work in a new term to bring in even more funding.

“You touched on some damage done during the budget impasse, that was all of us in elected office letting down young people in the low-income families in this state,” he said. “It shouldn’t have happened; it was completely unnecessary.”

Pritzker, meanwhile, has put out an early childhood plan that would, in his words, pave a path to universal 3- and 4-year-old preschool — something no other state has been able to fully execute. Asked why he’d shift scarce resources toward something so pricey, while also allocating more money toward the K-12 funding gap, he said it was a down payment on a continued investment.

“Over the course of a kid’s education, they are way more likely to graduate from high school, way more likely to graduate from college, to get a job, and less likely to get incarcerated when they get quality preschool and child care. Let’s not cut off our nose to spite our face.”

Sticker shock

In Illinois, child care costs eclipse rent, making it one of least affordable states  

The average annual cost of child care now outpaces what families spend on a year of rent in Illinois, according to a new report that examines child care costs nationwide.

Illinois is one of the 15 least affordable states in the country, according to the report from the Virginia-based nonprofit Child Care Aware of America. The nonprofit examined costs across the United States and adjusted them for median income and cost of living.

“Families are seeing that child care is a significant portion of the bill they have to pay,” rivaling the cost of college tuition, rent, and even sometimes mortgage payments in some areas of the country, said Dionne Dobbins, senior director of research at Child Care Aware.  

The average annual cost of center-based care for an infant in Illinois has reached $13,474 — which is a staggering 52 percent of the median income of a single-parent family in the state and nearly 15 percent of the state’s median married couple’s income.

That figure put it 13th among the least affordable states, which were ranked by the percentage of a single-parent family’s income spent on child care. Massachusetts topped out at nearly 65 percent of a single-parent family’s median income for center-based infant care.

In Illinois, care for toddlers and older children before and after school also consumed a greater percentage of a family’s income compared with other states. Illinois ranked 14th for toddler care as a percentage of median income, with an average cost of $11,982 for full-time toddler care at a center.

The state was among least affordable for the cost of three months of summer care.

 

Illinois offers a child care subsidy intended to offset the costs of care for low-income working families, but that program has been rocked by shifting eligibility requirements and compliance issues. Participation in the program has dropped by a third since 2015, when Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration changed eligibility requirements.

Dobbins said that, across the United States, child care subsidy programs are under pressure as states tighten compliance and lower reimbursement rates. In some states like Illinois, rising minimum wages have rendered some families ineligible for subsidies or staring down co-pays that they can’t afford.

Dobbins said that nationally, only one in six children eligible for subsidized child care actually ends up using it.

 

words of advice

Here’s advice from a social worker on how schools can support transgender students right now

PHOTO: Getty Images
A flag for transgender and gender noncomforming people is held up at a rally for LGBTQ rights at Washington Square Park.

Soon after news broke that the Trump administration could further roll back civil rights protections for transgender students, one New York City teacher sent an email blast to her fellow educators.

She was searching for materials to use in biology class that reflect people of different gender identities, but couldn’t find anything.

Many city educators may similarly grapple with how to support transgender students after it was reported that the Trump administration is considering whether to narrowly define gender based on a person’s biology at birth — a move that could have implications for how sex discrimination complaints in schools are handled under federal Title IX.

Olin Winn-Ritzenberg — a social worker at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center — has some tips for navigating the questions and emotions this latest proposal might surface. He runs a support group for transgender teens and their peers who want to be allies, and says the most important advice is to just be willing to talk and listen.

“I don’t think it’s the kind of thing that you want to wait until somebody is in crisis,” he said. “By bringing it up ourselves, we’re modeling support.”

Here’s what he had to say about recognizing transgender students, the protections that New York City and state offer, and some mistakes to avoid.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What are your tips for how to explain the news to students and young people?

If it’s news like this, that’s hard to maybe pin down what it exactly means (this was a memo, and does it have teeth? What does it mean?) I would look to them for the feeling of it. That’s what’s really important and a lot of what’s going on is just fear mongering, and a denial of trans existence. And that is something our young people will be able to speak to, to no end, and that they’re not strangers to — especially under this administration.

I would want to help ground things and offer some reassurance that a memo doesn’t have teeth and that we can look to our local New York City and state protections — that we’re lucky to live in a place that has such strong protections, especially for students.

What kinds of protections should New York City students expect to have in schools?

A student in New York City could expect to use the facilities that align with their identity, and could expect to possibly see all-gender facilities in their schools — as there are more and more of those being converted. They can expect to be able to file or register a complaint of discrimination against other students or even staff, and can expect to have an LGBT liaison within the Department of Education. They can expect to have their name and pronoun respected and utilized, and come up with a plan with a staff member around, if they’re transitioning socially or in any form at school, how they would like to be supported and how that looks in each unique situation.

It doesn’t always happen. But the fact that we do have it in policy means that there’s a means to pursuing it and that the institution is on the side of the trans or gender non-conforming student and would help to rectify any situation that’s feeling unsafe or unsupportive.

How can teachers and adults show support for their transgender students right now?

I don’t think it’s the kind of thing that you want to wait until somebody is in crisis. It shouldn’t be necessarily on any student to bring it up. By bringing it up ourselves, we’re modeling support. Even though this is a memo and we’re all waiting to see what they’re going to try to do with it, we know the intentions behind it…

I think we can speak directly to that and not make the debate about, ‘Is there or isn’t there a trans experience?’ That’s maybe one of the most powerful things. Yes, we exist. And if you’re an ally: ‘I’m a witness. You exist. You’re valid and as valid as anybody else.’

What would that validation look like in a school setting, say, if you’re a math teacher?

I think that making things visible is powerful. So if there’s a public bulletin board in a hallway and it says, ‘We stand with our trans staff and students,’ and then people have an opportunity to sign it.

I really think it can be an individualized response by a school depending on that school’s culture and if there is leadership by students, say, ‘We would like to be vocal and explicit in our support. You come up with the idea.’ Or, not to put it on them but say, ‘We’d love to be guided or get input from you on how to do that,’ so it is, wherever possible youth and trans-led.

Say, ‘What do you need and what can we provide?’

What should teachers and adults avoid saying or doing at a time like this?

I think a common, misguided mistake — that’s not necessarily hateful, but is really harmful nonetheless — is propping up a debate that’s going to hinge on ‘Do trans people exist?’ Or, ‘Defend or argue against sex being a binary, scientific, biological basis to view narrowly.’  

If a teacher wanted to engage with this but the assignment were more like, ‘What are your thoughts,’ there is so much education that needs to be done first — and that can put a person’s very identity and being up for debate in a classroom setting.

Another really bad thing would be just to ignore it because people are maybe scared of going there or don’t know what to do.