For the past four years, I’ve been working directly with parents in underserved communities, giving them the tools to engage both in their children’s education and to champion policies to improve Illinois public schools. As our membership continues to grow, I’ve begun working more on connecting our work at the Statehouse to our organizing. I spent last week in Springfield, helping our Government Affairs Director Jessica Handy welcome Illinois’ newest legislators. This was unlike my previous trips to Springfield, where we bring our members to attend rallies and meet their State Reps and Senators. This time, I spent most of my time delivering welcome packets to the General Assembly members.
I felt like a super-fan at a movie studio – walking the halls of the Capitol, seeing people whose names I’ve only seen in the paper, watching legislators chatting in the halls, and feeling the buzz of a new session.
On Tuesday afternoon I attended a press conference in support of Senate Bill 1 (SB1), which is the renewed effort to fix the state education funding formula. Folks would pass by and ask what was happening. Jessica and I would talk to them about the fact that Illinois public education funding is the second most regressive system in the US, that our neediest communities get the least amount of funding, and that our schools have not been funded adequately for years. Some people were aware of the issues, because a different funding bill, SB16, passed the Senate last year but was never called for a vote in the House. Fortunately, SB1 is new legislation that does a far better job of addressing the unique funding challenges of school districts throughout our state.
However, Tuesday felt different. Senators and Representatives from Chicago, the Chicago suburbs, and Downstate Illinois stood together to support education funding for all students. The bill’s sponsors and the Funding Illinois’ Future Coalition have worked hard to address concerns that were raised about SB16, and funding equity in Illinois seems within our reach.
The next day was Governor Rauner’s State of the State address, where he would outline his broad agenda for the next legislative session. Given that Illinois has a divided government for the first time since 2003, I expected to hear proposals that would create gridlock. I was pleasantly surprised to hear Governor Rauner promise to increase public school funding and make education a cornerstone of his administration.
As I write this post on the train ride home, I’m thinking a lot about what I’ve learned from my time in Springfield:
- Change is slow, yet possible – Funding public schools is often labeled a “Democrat’s” issue. The confluence of a Republican governor, Democratic legislature, and having an “upstate” and “downstate” coalition, puts fair and full funding within our grasp.
- Lawmakers truly value information – When I delivered our welcome packets, I saw that mine was one of a stack of policy briefs and position papers. It’s glaringly obvious now why many legislators are sometimes slow to appreciate the impact a bill can have on a particular community. As advocates, we must spend the same amount of time and care to educate and be a resource for both our Stand members and legislators.
- It’s all about the constituents – It is striking how differently legislative staff and members respond when a constituent delivers policy information. A constituent’s voice breaks through the noise lawmakers hear every day. Their constituent’s fight becomes their fight. It is essential for grassroots members to connect with their representatives in Springfield to build the schools Illinois’ children deserve.
There’s a lot more work to do. I’m looking forward to continue working with our parents, given these insights, and making sure all schools are fairly and fully funded.