On education, candidates for Illinois governor closer than they think

July 30, 2014

WBEZ/Tony Arnold
Bruce Rauner, the Republican candidate for Illinois governor, has said he’ll soon be releasing more information about his education policies. But expanding his vision in Illinois’ political climate could be easier said than done.

The Republican candidate for Illinois governor says he’ll soon be talking more about his top priority: education. Bruce Rauner has been involved in education for years, giving lots of money to schools and programs he believes in. But expanding his vision in Illinois’ political climate is another matter altogether.

Bruce Rauner, the Republican venture capitalist, has made a name for himself in education - literally. Rauner College Prep is a charter school on Chicago’s near west side. He’s also been recognized by education groups for his philanthropic work.

“Education is simply the most important thing we do together as a community. There’s nothing more important,” Rauner said during a debate organized by ABC 7 and Univision in the Republican primary. “It’s our future. It’s our democracy. It’s our income level. It’s at the core of every challenge that we face.”

Sources say Rauner was active behind the scenes in one of the biggest education policy initiatives to pass the state legislature in recent years. Senate Bill 7 was later signed into law by Rauner’s now-Democratic opponent, Gov. Pat Quinn.

The legislation dealt with teacher strike votes, evaluations and tenure. But when negotiations around those issues veered away from Rauner’s own vision, he distanced himself from the bill.

Some who’ve worked closely with Rauner on education issues say debates like that are why he is running for governor - to have the authority  to put his stamp on education policy.

“More charter schools, vouchers for poor kids, merit pay for great teachers, modified tenure so ineffective teachers aren’t locked in jobs forever,” Rauner said in that same debate.

But a governor’s accomplishments are rarely solitary efforts.  

It’s a pretty unique example, but 10 years ago, then-Governor Rod Blagojevich was in full rhetorical mode for an hour of his State of the State address. He spent more than an hour of his 90-minute address completely trashing the state’s education board.

“The Illinois State Board of Education is like an old, Soviet-style bureaucracy,” Blagojevich said. “It’s clunky and inefficient. It issues mandates. It spends money. It dictates policy and it isn’t accountable to anyone for anything.”

Blagojevich called for abolishing the Illinois State Board of Education and creating a new cabinet department under his office - a Department of Education.

The idea went nowhere. Blagojevich didn’t get legislators or interest groups on board.

That bit of history points to the political structure Rauner would have to work with.

More charter schools?

That means getting the legislature’s okay.

School vouchers?

That’s also a legislative issue.

Paying teachers based on the quality of their work?

He’d likely have to get lawmakers on board.

“I think whether this is a Governor Rauner or a Governor Quinn, what we’re finding is there’s a lot more support by legislators quietly to support some transformative policy,” said Myles Mendoza with Ed Choice Illinois. His organization is a non-profit that wants to expand educational alternatives for families.

Mendoza said a good example of the bipartisan movement around education change is Gov. Quinn’s Democratic running mate, Paul Vallas. Vallas ran public schools in Chicago, New Orleans, and Philadelphia.

“Both Paul Vallas and Bruce Rauner have really been aligned, very, very similar in their thinking of how they would approach education policy,” Mendoza said.

I asked Mendoza if it’s weird, seeing Republicans and Democrats  aligned that way.

“It certainly does scramble the radar,” he said.

What he means is that Vallas, a Democrat, and Rauner, a Republican, have taken similar stands against teachers unions and the Democrats who traditionally support them.

Dan Montgomery heads the Illinois Federation of Teachers, a union that represents about 80,000 teachers in the state, including charter schools.

Montgomery said politics has framed the debate around education in the wrong context.

“The challenges we have in this state are not about tenure, you know? They’re not about merit pay,” Montgomery said. “The challenges we have in the state are parents who look around and they say, ‘How come my kid’s school doesn’t have a library?’”

He says Bruce Rauner has made unions the enemy, and his economic and tax policies are examples of the misguided debate. Montgomery repeats something Quinn’s campaign often says, that Rauner’s plans will lose the state millions and he’ll end up having to cut education funding.

Montgomery says unions should get ready to find support in the legislature to resist negative education changes if Rauner’s elected.

But they should also be ready for another tactic: That Rauner would go around the legislature altogether with executive orders.

Tony Arnold covers Illinois politics for WBEZ. Follow him @tonyjarnold.