The situation in the state of Illinois is deplorable. The Chicago Tribune reports that Republican Governor Bruce Rauner is trying to save money by shifting “government functions to the private sector. Since January, he’s formed a private not-for-profit corporation to handle the state’s business recruitment efforts; announced a plan to allow private companies to build and manage new toll lanes along a congested stretch of the Stevenson Expressway; and called for private donors to step in to help the financially struggling state museums and fairgrounds.”
Sara Burnett, for the Associated Press, reports that Illinois has cut more than $1 billion from its education budget since 2009. Meanwhile Illinois has not yet passed the state budget for the current fiscal year that ends on June 30. Although some money was set aside for schools, the results are catastrophic. Burnett describes small school districts in southern Illinois in danger of closing their doors: “Unthinkable even a few months ago, the possibility of the (budget) impasse extending to a second year and shutting down school systems has grown stronger in recent weeks. If it happens, it would be the most traumatic consequence of a fight between the state’s Republican governor, Bruce Rauner, and Democrats who run the legislature, and mark a new low for political dysfunction in the nation’s fifth-largest state.” Burnett adds, “While money has stopped flowing for most social service programs, schools continued to get their state funding this year. But that support is in doubt for the new fiscal year that begins in July, and no one knows exactly how long Illinois’ school districts can last without state funds to supplement local property tax revenue and cash reserves… (A)bout 130—or 15 percent of the total (school districts) statewide—had less than 90 days in cash reserves as of last summer…. The numbers for most districts are bleaker today….”
Writing for Catalyst Chicago, a journal that tracks issues in the Chicago Public Schools, Maureen Kelleher explains that in 2010 the state addressed school funding, setting a foundation amount of state aid-per-pupil at $6,119. When the federal stimulus funds ran out, however, that money was never delivered. The results have been catastrophic for small and very poor districts that lack sufficient taxable property to build up reserves. The consequences are also dangerous for city school districts like Chicago, especially when there is a decline in enrollment exacerbated by the rapid expansion of charter schools.
State universities were not protected (as school districts were) this year, and those with the smallest endowments remain in danger of closing. Burnett reports, “Chicago State University, a four-year institution that primarily serves African-American students that opened in 1867, was on the verge of closing at month’s end before lawmakers last week passed a stop-gap funding measure that colleges say still falls short of a full budget.” In early April, Julie Bosman described Chicago State University’s crisis in the NY Times: “Since last July, when the fiscal year began, the university has received zero dollars from the state, though it relies on Illinois for 30 percent of its $105 million budget… In February, the school declared a financial emergency. Officials canceled spring break and moved commencement up to April 28, rushing to finish the semester…. Last month, members of the faculty and staff were notified that the school was making contingency plans to collect their keys.” Until the emergency funds arrived, money to pay faculty and staff were expected to run out on April 30.
At Chicago Theological Seminary, the Rev. John Thomas has been closely tracking the crisis at Chicago State all year. Despite that the legislature provided short-term emergency funding in late April, Rev. Thomas reminds his readers: “After September the future remains bleak.”
He continues: “Nearly 70 percent of students in the nation’s most selective colleges are from the top economic quartile.” In contrast, “Over the last twenty years CSU has graduated more African American students each year than any other university—public or private—in the state of Illinois. Faculty members engage not just in traditional teaching and scholarship, but in supporting ill prepared students from challenging households succeed. Tuition is $10,000 to $12,000 a year, making it far more affordable than other options… If Chicago State closes, many, if not most of the current student body will not re-enroll anywhere else…. The ripple effects will also be devastating. Chicago State has historically graduated a high percentage of the school teachers, nurses, pharmacists, social workers, and business people working in the South Side’s under-served neighborhoods. And it is a significant employer for the community already staggering under economic strains.”
There is something deeply wrong when ideology seems to have driven our society way off course. Traditionally our society has endorsed the principle that tax and budget policies should reduce disparities between rich and poor, strengthen democracy, and provide greater opportunity. Paying taxes for government services has been accepted for generations as a civic responsibility of individuals and businesses. We have also traditionally believed that the tax code ought to be progressive, with the heaviest burden on those with the greatest financial means. And we have prized public schools and public universities as the very heart of a good society.