Yesterday, the 99th General Assembly was sworn in. Sure, it was symbolic and full of fanfare, but I can’t help but be optimistic about 2015. (Crazy, since I am a notorious pessimist – but hear me out!)
I started working around Illinois politics in 2004, when I was lowly legislative research intern. Since then, there has been a Democratic Governor and Democratic House and Senate majorities. Or sometimes Democratic supermajorities. But never a Republican as Governor or presiding over either chamber. Despite some of the rhetoric, Illinois made some great steps forward in education, with better evaluations, new user-friendly report cards for parents, an overhaul of school leadership training, a shift to higher standards.
But you know what’s still really broken? Our funding system. It’s incredibly imbalanced and shortchanges the students who need it most. Even though it’s become almost common knowledge around the capitol that the state of Illinois contributes the lowest percentage of any state to P-12 education, the fact remains that there is a $1.5 billion budget hole this year and we shouldn’t hold our breath for an influx of funding for the cash-starved system in the short term. (Next year, the budget hole will be even bigger at over $5 billion.) Speaker Madigan, President Cullerton, and our new Governor Rauner all highlighted work that has been done or is left to do in education. And this morning, the Senate followed up by officially filing Senate Bill 1: the Education Funding Reform Act of 2015.
Last year, Senate Democrats passed a funding reform bill with a sole Republican vote. But this year, Republicans can really step up and get in the game! Their schools are being shortchanged too, and their Governor publicly lamented the disparities in public school funding throughout his campaign. Education should never be a partisan issue; it’s too important. It transcends party lines. Governor Rauner attended the inauguration parties last night of both the “Legislative Black Caucus” and the “Legislative Latino Caucus.” He hugged their chairmen, and addressed the crowds. He committed to working with them toward, among other things, access for every child to a high quality education. And he appointed a former Senate Democrat, Rev. James Meeks, as chairman of the Illinois State Board of Education.
Is it too naïve of me to think this will be the year for the parties to come together for the good of our children to fix our broken school funding formula? Maybe. Time will tell, but I’m holding out hope!