By Sophia Tareen
CHICAGO — By extracting Chicago money from a measure all Illinois public schools needed to get state funding this fall, Gov. Bruce Rauner reignited an age-old but divisive political strategy on a new front.
Pitting Chicago against the rest of Illinois has been a popular tool for Rauner, who drummed up enough support outside of the Democratic stronghold in 2014 to become the state’s first GOP governor in more than a decade. But this time it’s a particularly risky move ahead of Rauner’s 2018 re-election bid, with schools across the state potentially paying the price.
Rauner used his veto powers this week to rewrite a funding plan and remove hundreds of millions of dollars for Chicago Public Schools he said would be redistributed to other districts. He characterized it as “fair and equitable,” but without a viable alternative and with big vote margins needed to overturn him or approve the changes, money for schools is in limbo just days before some start classes.
Educators are on edge, especially in rural areas and small towns which helped Rauner get elected but where budgets are tight.
Superintendent Rolf Sivertsen says his 2,600-student district in central Illinois’ Canton won’t be able to stay open for long. He anticipates dipping into its $8 million reserves, just a portion of its $24 million annual budget. Sivertsen, a Republican who supports Rauner’s pro-business agenda, says the school funding fight makes him question the governor’s leadership.
“What disappoints me the most about this whole scenario and angers me is the governor is whipsawing the citizens of our state against one another, downstate against Chicago,” he said. “We need to work together and not divide the citizens of our state.”
In issuing the veto, Rauner’s message centered on unity statewide, but on the road he often amplifies the geographical divide and simplifies what the bill does.
“Hundreds of thousands of dollars per school district should come here, not sent to Chicago,” Rauner said in Carbondale last month. “The numbers are staggering how much money they want to take away from schools here and send to Chicago for pension payments.”
The wealthy businessman campaigned on a promise to shake up the establishment with pro-business, union-curbing reforms to boost Illinois’ economy. However, he clashed with Democrats in charge at every turn. The result was an unprecedented state budget impasse that ended just last month.
Until now, K-12 schools have been absent from the fight. Rauner rejected the first budget lawmakers sent him except for schools and a temporary budget kept schools open the following year.
However, the new budget Democrats and some Republicans approved over Rauner’s objections requires a different school funding formula for schools to get funding.
The bulk of the plan Democrats waited two months to send Rauner is intended to reduce disparities in per-student funding that existed between wealthy and poor districts under the previous funding formula — a system both parties agreed was unfair.
The Democrats’ plan would channel money to the neediest districts first after making sure no district receives less than last school year. It also would provide millions to help pay for Chicago teacher pensions — costs Illinois covers for every other district. Rauner blasted that as a “bailout” for a “mismanaged” pension system.
The plan’s sponsor, Sen. Andy Manar, said Rauner has done “a masterful job of dividing and slicing the state” just as he did the legislation.
“The oldest trick in the playbook is for Gov. Rauner to run around downstate communities that have seen an explosion of poverty and point a finger of blame at ‘those people in Chicago,'” the Bunker Hill Democrat said.
Experts say the tactic can sometimes be successful, with resentments running deep. But it also could backfire, and Democrats may take heat too.
“He could end up wearing the jacket for some of the schools. They may open, but some of the poorer districts may not stay open for very long,” said Jak Tichenor, interim director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University. “The pressure will be brought to bear on this … At some point, it could blow up in both parties’ faces.”
That’s not how Franklin County Republican Chairman Jim Kerley, a former school board member, sees it. He’s flatly against any additional help for Chicago, which he says already disproportionately benefits because of House Speaker Michael Madigan, a Chicago Democrat who’s the longest-serving House speaker nationwide.
“He focuses on Chicago and his power,” Kerley said.
Still, he acknowledged Rauner’s tough re-election bid.
The race could be the most expensive nationwide. Rauner has already put $50 million of his own money in and faces a growing list of Democratic opponents including billionaire businessman J.B. Pritzker and Chris Kennedy, the nephew of the late President John F. Kennedy.
With Rauner’s changes, the plan returns to the Legislature. Overriding or approving his changes requires a tough three-fifths majority. Without any movement, the plan dies. A group of bipartisan lawmakers continues negotiations, but has yet to reveal an alternative.