by Fêlix Pérez
Illinois’ private school voucher program matters a great deal to Gov. Bruce Rauner, so much so that he vetoed a new education formula early this year because, he complained, it did not allow three dozen private schools to participate in the program.
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Enter longtime education advocate J.B. Pritzker, who is challenging Rauner in the November election for the state’s chief executive. Pritzker, a decades-long activist and advocate for early education, vowed last week to gut Rauner’s voucher program, euphemistically called education tax credits. “I am opposed to that $75 million tax credit, that school voucher program he’s [Rauner] created,” Pritzker said. “We should as soon as possible do away with it.”
Pritzker called Rauner’s program a “backdoor voucher program.” He took exception to the argument that tax credits do not take funding from public schools. Rauner “took it [funding] out of the public school system. That is what he did. He took it out of the public school funding and moved it into this private tax credit. That is a problem because we are already underfunding our public schools. So to take it out and put it into this private tax credit system seems to me very unfair to public schools.” He later aded, “What I really oppose is taking money out of the public schools and that is what happened here in order to provide that private tax credit to wealthy people.”
Rauner eventually signed the education funding formula, but his action was the latest in his three-year tenure to plunge the state’s public schools into chaos by making them wait for funding. Rauner’s failure to draw up a balanced budget in 2015, 2016 and 2017, despite his clams to the contrary, led the independent fact-checking organization Poltifact to give a “pants on fire” rating to his statement “I have introduced balanced budgets every year that I’ve been governor.”
Rauner previously pushed the state into a two-year budget impasse, during which more than $1 billion was not paid out to school districts. Public colleges and universities statewide announced layoffs, social service agencies shut down, construction projects stalled, and businesses were owed billions for goods and services provided to the state.
Criticism of Rauner’s leadership crosses party lines. Rauner was dubbed the “worst Republican governor in America” by a leading conservative magazine.
A longtime critic of public schools, Rauner, before becoming governor, told other wealthy activists in a 2011 email that half of Chicago teachers “are virtually illiterate” and that half the principals are “incompetent.”
Pritzker’s views on education funding was one of the reasons he was recommended in the Democratic primary for governor by the 135,000-member IEA this month. “It was Pritzker’s strong commitment to funding K-12 education, his promise to invest in higher education, his pledge to protect collective bargaining rights and his willingness to enact a progressive income tax that matched our goals for public education in Illinois,” said educator and IEA President Griffin.
Pritzker and his wife M.K. are funding a research-based policy initiative to “promote high quality early learning and development.” The early childhood education initiative is partnering with several national organizations that have strong community ties to enhance local support for children from birth to age three and their families. The Pritzkers put up $6.5 million to support a one-year pilot. As an extension of his 20 years advocating for access to high-quality early education, Pritzker has proposed a comprehensive birth-to-five educational system so every child has the opportunity to achieve his or her full potential.