I hate to say, “I told you so”.
But, as Chicago aldermen begin to come forward to sacrifice on the altar of woefully underfunded Chicago Public Schools, neighborhood projects that would have been funded by monies from the Tax Increment Financing (or TIF) program, it is hard for me not to think about the work that I was doing ten years ago. Back in 2006, I was a part of the team at A+ Illinois, a coalition of organization and individuals across the state fighting for a new, more equitable school funding formula for Illinois.
I remember that work like it was yesterday. I remember the long hours and the large rallies. I remember short chats with legislators around the rail and small group meetings with community leaders from Evanston to Edwardsville. But, most of all I remember the many, many talks with my colleagues in our borrowed office space, here in Chicago about the seriousness of the work that we were doing.
We understood that an inequitable system that leaned too much on property taxes did not send adequate funding to high need districts like Chicago. We knew from the numbers that the structural problems in our school funding system were just not sustainable. We knew in our hearts that when the bills were due, the most vulnerable students, families and communities would suffer the most. We were prophets heralding an uncomfortable, but unavoidable truth: the overreliance on local funding schemes would one day wreak havoc on school districts around the state. We knew this day was coming.
We worked hard to spread the word about the trouble that would come. We talked to lawmakers, hosted town halls, and even rallied with nearly 10,000 people at the state capitol. But, still, we never changed the system. Now instead of renovating park districts, building baseball diamonds, and investing in job creation and economic development; aldermen are being pressured to spend TIF money to fund the Chicago Public Schools. Ten years ago, we warned of doomsday. Now, it is here.
But, another thing that has not changed is the need for a solution for the inequities that exist in our state funding formula. We still live in a state with the smallest state contributions to education funding. We still live in a state with one of the widest gaps in school funding between the highest funded district and the district with the lowest funding. We still live in a state in which the school funding system is inadequate and inequitable. And this one fact has not changed: there is no local solution that really makes sense. We need have to fix it in Springfield.
So, as the rhetorical battle-royale begins while folks here in Chicago fight over IF, and when and how to raid TIFs, I hope that we can all turn our eyes to the real issue. It is the same issue that hovered like a dark cloud over CPS ten years ago. Only now, the thunder and lighting has started and the rain is pouring down. Our state’s school funding system is inequitable and inadequate. And there is no local fix that really solves the problem.
We veterans of the A+ effort aren’t the only people who have been right on this issue. Governor Jim Edgar was right before us, and Dawn Clarke Netsch before him, and Governor Adlai Stevenson before her.
But, being right isn’t enough. We have to get it done. It is time for everyone to put differences aside and focus on the fundamental issue: we need an equitable approach to school funding at the state level. I for one promise to do whatever I can to fix this age old problem.
And I promise not to say, “I told you so”.
Chris worked as deputy campaign manager and field director for A+ Illinois where he developed a strong, statewide field operation including over 500 organizations and 50,000 individuals around the state working to bring adequacy and equity to Illinois’ school funding system and as the director of advocacy and outreach at New Schools for Chicago, a leader in school reform in Chicago.
Chris is a 2006 graduate of the Ministry Training Institute and holds a degree in civic and political engagement from Northeastern Illinois University.