‘School Choice’ Divides Gubernatorial Candidates In WBEZ/Chalkbeat Election Special | WBEZ
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‘School Choice’ Divides Gubernatorial Candidates In WBEZ/Chalkbeat Election Special

The role private schools should play in Illinois’ public education landscape is turning out to be a major divide in the state’s gubernatorial race, with Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner saying he wants to expand a taxpayer-funded program to send children to private schools, while Democratic challenger JB Pritzker is vowing to shut it down.

“I’d like to have a billion dollar program,” Rauner told WBEZ and Chalkbeat Chicago in a one-hour election special on the future of education in Illinois. “We started with $100 million. Let’s expand it every year.”

Illinois’ $100 million Invest in Kids program, new this year, allows taxpayers to donate to scholarship funds for private schools. Donors then get 75 percent of their donation back as a credit on their Illinois state income tax, up to $1 million.

Pritzker called the program “a tax break for wealthy people.” If elected, he has said he’ll end it before it sunsets in 2023.

“To divert money that could have been used for public schools to a tax credit for private schools — it seems to me is backward,” Pritzker said. The Democrat did not respond to questions about what he would tell the more than 5,600 children attending private schools this year on the taxpayer-funded scholarships.

WBEZ and Chalkbeat-Chicago spoke separately with the two major gubernatorial candidates. The interviews, where the candidates also shared opposing views on an elected school board for Chicago and on a bill raising the state’s minimum teacher salary, took place over the last few days.

Many of their views fall along predictable ideological lines in education. Rauner has sparred with teacher unions since before he was elected. Pritzker is endorsed by them. But the two also showed incongruencies between their personal lives and political views, with Pritzker sending his children to private schools but opposing new charter schools and taxpayer-funded private school scholarships. Rauner, who supports those things, made headlines in 2013 when it was revealed he had clouted his daughter into Chicago’s highly selective Walter Payton College Prep in Chicago, an elite public school.

There were points of agreement between the two candidates; both said investment in public education should increase. Both said they’d expand preschool education. And both emphasized that a family’s income, race, or zip code should not determine the quality of education their children receive, through the candidates charted different paths to that goal, with Rauner leaning on school choice and Pritzker talking about well-funded public schools.

The audio interviews with each candidate are posted above. Highlights of the candidates’ points on various education issues follow:

On an elected school board for Chicago

Bruce Rauner: We should not politicize the difficult efforts and big decisions that need to be made to turn around Chicago Public Schools. That would politicize it. I don't think we should do that.

JB Pritzker: We have 102 counties in the state of Illinois, and that's only in the city of Chicago where there is not an elected school board. Having representation from the community really does make a difference in the quality of a school. The idea of taking democracy away from people and saying that that reduces gridlock — that's not correct.

On school funding

Rauner: So what we need to do is two things. First, not raise taxes like my opponent. We're already one of the heaviest taxed states in America. How do we do it? Shrink our government bureaucracy — not our programs, our government bureaucracy — through pension reform, health care reform, consolidating governments. And grow our economy faster. Our challenge in Illinois is we have not been growing enough good-paying jobs. Job creators have been moving out because we over regulate and overtax our businesses.  

Pritzker: We've got to give a property tax break to people who are being overtaxed today —  the middle class and those striving to get there — and ask those who are wealthiest to pay a little more. So that means changing to a fair tax system. That's an income tax system that asks the wealthiest in Illinois to pay more.

[In] the average state in the United States, about half the money comes from property taxes and half the money comes from state income taxes to pay for schools. But we're at like 25 percent from the state and 75 percent from property taxes. We need to directionally head toward 50-50, and that's going to take some number of years. But it is something that you have to start working on immediately.

Then of course we can look at other sources of revenue besides a fair tax system. I've talked, for example, about the possibility of legalizing sports betting in the state — which would bring hundreds of millions of dollars — and the possibility of legalizing recreational marijuana … [which] brings in potentially $700 million of new revenue.

On charter schools

Rauner: Education can be what works best for each individual student. A standard public school might be great for many students. But you know what? Sometimes a parochial school, a private school, homeschooling, a charter public school might be a better option. Our parents deserve options.

Pritzker: I think that there are good charter schools out there and those are worthy of continued support. But right now, expanding the opportunity for people to start charter schools … we ought to be making sure that our public schools —  the existing public schools — are adequately funded before we ever go after any kind of new charter schools.

On Illinois college students leaving the state

Rauner: We have had declining enrollment at many of our state universities for decades, and we have been cutting support from the state for our state universities for decades. This is a problem that's endemic in the broken system we have, and we need structural change to fix it: more economic opportunity and less tax burden. And changing our state universities so they don't suffer from the same problems as our government — high pensions, high bureaucracy, high mandates, broken procurement. Our university costs and tuition costs are way too high because the money is going into the bureaucracy, not into the classroom with the students.

Pritzker: The cost of supporting an expansion of MAP grants (state grants for low-income students) is about $200 million. Let's talk about why we need to do that. Because under Bruce Rauner, 72,000 kids in the state of Illinois chose not to go to school in Illinois. When those kids leave, those are our best economic resources getting up and leaving our state. They're also our kids. ... We need to create more opportunities for people to be able to afford to go to college in the state.

On raising minimum teacher pay

Rauner: I have fought for more teacher money more teacher pay my entire life. I personally paid the bonuses to Chicago public school teachers who got nationally board certified. I am committed to more money. And the way we get that is not by forcing some minimum. [Rauner vetoed a bill that would have set $40,000 as the minimum teacher salary in the state by 2022.] That could bankrupt some small rural school districts. What gets it is more money from the state. And that's why I got $1.4 billion dollars more and reversed the damage that the Democrats in the General Assembly had done by cutting state support for years. We're reversing years of damage.

One size does not fit all. We can't look at the cost structure and the teacher compensation in Chicago or Winnetka and compare it to a tiny rural district with very low cost of living and very limited resources and say you have to pay the same as what they pay in Chicago.

Pritzker: We've got to make sure that we're actually attracting quality people into the profession by having salaries that are attractive for people —  that's something that Gov. Rauner opposed and vetoed.

On expanding preschool education

Rauner: We now have record funding for early childhood education in the state of Illinois. I fought for that every year, and we got more and more. I'm also an advocate for high-quality child care. My wife and I have dedicated years to that effort. And my wife leads that effort as the CEO of Ounce of Prevention Fund, which is the United States’ leader in early childhood education and high-quality child care. You touched on some damage done in the budget impasse. That was all of us in elected office letting down the young people and the low-income families in this state. It was outrageous and wrong, shouldn't have happened, was completely unnecessary. And to be crystal clear: Madigan and his Democrats had a super majority during that budget impasse. They could have passed any budget they wanted at any time with or without my support. They refused to do it because they wanted to force a tax hike and get Republican votes on that.

Pritzker: All the studies show that the investment in universal preschool actually yields lots of savings in our K-12 education system and in our university education system. So when you talk about investing in those earliest years — and yes, we've got significant fiscal challenges in the state, in part brought on by a governor unwilling to pass a budget for two years and vetoed a third year's budget — the fact is that we've got to go address those fiscal issues. But let's not cut off our nose to spite our face. Let's make sure that we put money where it will save us taxpayer dollars along the road.

On where the candidates sent their own children  to public or private school

Rauner: We have six children. For most of them, they've gone through public schools all the way through. A couple chose a private school. And that's what I'm a big believer in: school choice, competitive options. And I have devoted much of my life to making sure that the same choices I could make with my kids, every parent can make for their child regardless of where they live, regardless of what their income is.

Pritzker: Both my kids go to a private school near our home. And that actually was the major reason that we made that decision was that the schools were very close to where we live. But I'm a believer that public schools are maybe the most important thing that we can provide for our children. Well-funded public schools. And Governor Rauner has been trying to divert money from public schools and does not fundamentally believe that public education should get the first dollars and instead thinks apparently that a private tax credit is more worthy.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. The original audio interviews with each candidate is available on this web page.

To read more on the candidates’ positions, check out their answers to five education questions here.

Linda Lutton covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter at @WBEZeducation and @lindalutton.

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