Political flame-throwing rhetoric is cooling down now that the Illinois General Assembly and Gov. Bruce Ruaner passed a last-minute “stopgap” budget June 30. But in the months and weeks leading up to the final compromise, Gov. Bruce Rauner made some digs at Chicago area schools that may be hard to forgive or forget.
Rauner says he considers himself a champion of CPS. He even clouted his daughter into Walter Payton College Prep, a CPS magnet high school.
“I’m an advocate for education,” he said in an interview with the Crain’s Chicago Business editorial board. “I’m for charter schools, I support vouchers,” the governor said. “I’ve spent thousands of dollars of my own money, out of my pocket [to pay] bonuses for CPS teachers to become board certified.”
But as legislative lockjaw gripped the General Assembly and school superintendents statewide announced they would not open in the fall without state money, the pressure began to build to cut a deal. With the possibility that Chicago schools would receive what Rauner called “a bailout” the governor began to lash out at Chicago schools.
Chicago State University: a “failed institution”
Rauner’s reckless remarks about Chicago educational institutions got started in January, when he called Chicago State University, the City College’s only four-year college a “failed institution.”
CSU, which serves about 4,500 students – mostly minority and “untraditional”– declared financial exigency and threatened to close its doors.
Due to the lack of a state budget, the school did not receive about 30 percent of its revenue, or $36 million, from the state of Illinois. The university also didn’t receive $5 million in Monetary Award Program (MAP) grants and missed out on $1.6 million other state-funded scholarship money.
“I care very much about the students at Chicago State University,” Rauner said in January. “They are being failed. Maybe we should take the money we’re sending to a failed institution and give it to the kids and let them choose their school.”
Rauner then blamed the school’s financial crisis on mismanagement.
“Look at their financial situation. They have been abusing taxpayer dollars, wasting money and doing self-dealing for years. For them to [say] we’re more broke then most when they’ve been throwing money down the toilet? Well then they should have some standards of behavior to hold people accountable.”
Some worried Rauner’s remarks would only make a bad situation worse, and could cause long-lasting damage to the state’s highest minority-serving university.
“Any time you have these kinds of upheavals, like declaring exigency, it takes a while to restore your reputation within the higher education realm in terms of recruiting faculty and students,” said George Pernsteiner, president of the Boulder, Colorado based State Higher Education Executive Officers Association.
Perlsteiner said a financial crisis can tarnish the reputation of any university.
“This sends a message to potential future students that the university can’t be viewed positively in terms of financial stability,” he said.
CPS state takeover and bankruptcy
A few weeks later, Rauner floated a solution for the $1.14 billion deficit in Chicago Public Schools: The state should take them over and declare the district bankrupt.
Rauner explained to Crain’s Chicago Business.
“If CPS goes bankrupt, it doesn’t have to involve layoffs. With a judge they can restructure contracts and long-term debts, which can lead to better financial health for the district.”
The discussion sent a shock through the district and among citizens who noted parallels to the bankruptcy of Detroit.
A CPS spokesperson said in the Chicago Tribune, “Rather than invest in our state’s future, Governor Rauner seems hellbent on driving schools to the point of financial ruin – whether it’s CPS, Chicago State, Eastern Illinois, or dozens of local school districts around the state.”
Emanuel proposed the state give Chicago schools $200 million to help the district pay an upcoming $636 million pension payment. Emanuel also said he’d raise property taxes $175 million to pay for school pensions.
Rauner became more insistent that Chicago schools should not “get a bailout” at the expense of downstate school districts. The Republican proposed education budget funded CPS at the past year’s rate, $74 million, and had no provision for the special $200 million pension payment requested by Emanuel.
State Democrats then countered with an $860 million education plan that gave CPS $400 million more than last year, including $110 million to help pay its teacher pensions.
On June 6, Rauner uttered some testy remarks comparing the Chicago Public Schools to “crumbling prisons.”
“The simple fact is that when you look objectively at the status of Chicago Public Schools, many of them are inadequate, many of them are woeful and some are just tragic,” Rauner said at a meeting at the 1871 tech center. “Many of them are basically, almost crumbling prisons. They’re not a place that a young person should be educated. We’ve got to improve the system.”
Outraged reactions followed. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel called the comment “Trumplike” and said Rauner was using the “rhetoric of divisiveness, targeting one community against another. It sounds like he’s auditioning to be Donald Trump’s running mate.”
Meanwhile social media filled up with proud parents and teachers using the hashtag #notaprison to post photos of school achievements: Graduations, butterfly gardens, awards, art projects and class concerts.
Chicago Urban League CEO Shari Runner called Rauner’s crumbling prisons crack “insensitive and racially divisive.”
“There is absolutely no place for this kind of incendiary rhetoric that perpetuates a stereotypical narrative, especially given the school-to-prison pipeline that plagues our city,” she said in a statement. “Our children’s futures are being threatened by a broken funding system that disproportionately affects students of color and those from low-income families.”
Ald. Howard Brookins, (21st Ward) said Rauner’s talk was “racist rhetoric” and called for an apology.
“Words matter, and the offensive way that Gov. Rauner speaks about Chicago families is just getting uglier and uglier,” Brookins said.
Chicago Schools CEO Forrest Claypool said the remark was “disrespectful and beneath [Rauner’s] office.” To a group of students the next day, Claypool said, “[Rauner] doesn’t know. He’s ignorant. He’s obviously a very smart man, and we would like to help educate him about our schools.”
But Rauner dug in in downstate Bloomington a couple days later maintained his prison analogy when describing Chicago schools.
“[CPS schools] have metal bars on the windows. They’re dark, depressing; they’re crumbling. They have metal detectors and police officers everywhere.”
Rauner continued to insist the state was being blackmailed by CPS to get the district out of a $1.14 billion hole the Chicago schools had dug for themselves.
“A bailout of CPS’s financial problems is not fair, it’s not the right thing to do,” he told Crain’s. “The taxpayers of Illinois did not create the financial crisis in CPS. CPS has been run as a political operation and a patronage operation for decades.
It’s always been bloated and ineffective and inefficient and uses hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer money for non-educational purposes.”
Rauner said Emanuel had “three legitimate options.”
“He can negotiate a new teachers union contract. But he caved last year, he ‘s ready to cave again. He can raise property taxes for Chicago and I’m not an advocate for that,” he said.
“The third option would be to allow school districts and local governments to declare bankruptcy,” he said.
“They’ve tried to create a fourth option: a big bailout form the state.”
The (not so) grand compromise
The last day of the fiscal year, Democrats and Republicans finally hammered out a temporary budget that would at least pay for schools and some social services to limp on until after the November election.
How did Rauner fare?
In the compromise, schools across the state will be funded at full rates, and receive an extra $350 million in poverty grants. Of that, CPS will get about $95 million extra. The state will end up paying $215 million in a one-time (for now) payment to help plug the hole in CPS’s pension fund. Finally, the General Assembly opened the door for a $250 million Chicago property tax hike for CPS, thereby removing the political heat from local aldermen.
Emanuel said he was pleased with the final arrangement, calling it a “three-way handshake” between the state, the city of Chicago and CPS.
“The state had to step up do something it had never done: Treat teachers pensions and Chicago taxpayers with the same fairness and equity they do across the state, but not Chicago. And that happened,” Emanuel said July 1. Emanuel said property taxes would go up.
“I’ve always acknowledged that we, as a city, our taxes would have to step up. I was honest about it.”
As for Rauner, he said, “I firmly believe we’ve hit the low point in the evolution of Illinois.”
“Today’s bi-partisan compromise allows schools to open on time and funds essential services for the families most in need,” he said. “This is a bridge to passing the reforms necessary to change the trajectory of the state, ensure every child has access to an excellent education and grow the economy.”