By Steven Isaacson

Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner (R-IL) is holding hostage billions of dollars in state education funding. If the Democratic state legislature does not approve Rauner’s demands on tax freezes, collective bargaining, worker compensation, and inequitable school spending, he will veto the 2017 budget wholesale.

Gov. Rauner addresses IL state legislature
Gov. Rauner addresses IL state legislature

The governor is, according to Chicago Mayor Raum Emanuel, reenacting the story of Moby Dick, where Rauner is dead-set on tackling the whale, in this case State House Speaker Michael Madigan, instead of caring for the lives of the ship’s passengers, Illinois citizens. Meanwhile, Rauner and state Republicans are dismissing the mayor’s call for desperate financial help for Chicago Public Schools as a bailout.

The state, by the way, has been operating without a budget since last July.

If this tactic reminds you of the brinksmanship strategy employed by Ted Cruz, the Tea Party, and Congressional Republicans with threatening to default on the national debt if Democrats didn’t repeal Obamacare, well, it should. Cruz and Congressional Republicans threatened the bond market. Rauner is using the future of Illinois children, among other needy populations, as his political pawn.

How despicable.

In education policy, much research has been prepared on the idea that schools must be accountable to their students. In K-12, schools must track students’ academic outcomes annually and focus attention and interventions on low-performing subgroups of students and schools. In higher ed., similar discussions are mounting on the need for colleges to be accountable for student success both during their academic careers and after graduation.

But this budget impasse makes one thing very clear: So too must lawmakers hold up their side of the equation.

Democrats in the legislature argue that the budget process should not be about promoting policy reforms, but about distributing sufficient and equitable funding for social services, including the state’s K-12 and higher education systems.

As the Illinois Constitution says:

“The state shall provide for an efficient system of high quality public educational institutions and services. The state has the primary responsibility for financing public education.”

So much for respect of the rule of law.

Currently, Illinois is ranked dead last out of all states for education spending from the budget – only a little over a quarter of dollars spent on education comes from the state, with most coming from local property taxes. The state, in fact, has been defunding education by a total of $1.4 billion dollars since 2009!

While politicians at the state capitol argue, the President of Chicago State University, Thomas Calhoun, has planned massive layoffs and a shortened school year.

School districts across the state are worried they won’t open on time.

At a time when progress was being made on postsecondary education enrollment, students are losing hope in their state schools, forcing them to look out-of-state for college, if at all. K-12 schools will be forced to run on reserve funds and programming as well as social services could be ceased.

How can we approach education policy by promising students funding in exchange for hard work and good grades, if we can’t hold up our side of the bargain?

In the short-term, partisan quarreling has resulted in a last-minute stop-gap measure signed by Gov. Rauner that funneled $600 million to help struggling higher education institutions. But this short-term measure only lasts until the end of the summer, keeping state colleges and universities on edge for future prospects.

More than a dozen superintendents sent a letter to the governor’s office, expressing their frustration with the political games played in Springfield taking pertinence over the lives of schoolchildren. This may fall upon deaf ears, however, as the legislative session has ended for the summer. But lawmakers have “promised” to continue working after the session ends and that they’ll consider a short-term solution in the coming weeks.

If not though, the fight continues in September when lawmakers gather again.

Lawmakers must remove themselves from their comfortable political corners, stop jockeying for position, and carry out their constitutional obligation to fund Illinois’ future.

It will take several years for the effects of this battle to wear off and it will no doubt affect disproportionally low-income families – especially in Chicago — who will be forced to bear the brunt of any negative financial ramifications.

As the Chicago Tribune’s Eric Zorn notes, “It will take courage on the part of legislators to get Chicago off that list of most disadvantaged schools and offer a better future to all kids in Illinois growing up in property-poor districts.”

As advocates for education reform, it is our job to look out for these children’s lives, and to provide a voice for those without.

Education is at the foundation of making those lives better.

Illinois state lawmakers should do their jobs, provide funding for education, and advance school reform and improvement. Do not hold innocent students’ lives hostage.