Illinois politics is many things, but it is never boring.
The Illinois State House of Representatives today voted 110-4 in favor of a bill changing the 15-member Chicago Board of Education from being appointed by the mayor, which it has been since 1872, to being elected by Chicagoans, starting in 2018. We shall see if if the Illinois Senate decides to take up and pass the bill as well.
I’ve heard people agitating in favor this change since I got to Chicago – to me it always sounded like another version of the ever popular “Boo the mayor!” trope – so I’m pretty amazed that it might actually happen. I am also a little terrified. Why? Because education is a battleground. Especially in Illinois, and especially in Chicago.
Meanwhile, Chicago Public Schools (CPS), are rapidly running out of money. The State is in an ongoing budget crisis – everybody wants more services and lower taxes and also a balanced budget – in which the Governor seems to be (in my view) slowly winning. Rahm Emmanuel, the mayor of Chicago, is in a terrible spot right now, and as far as I can tell there isn’t any good way out. In order to get city tax revenues up, he needs to make the city attractive to middle and upper class people – i.e. he needs to keep up the gentrification efforts, keep putting money into building parks and bike paths, and keep plenty of cops on the streets – but if he wants to win elections, he still needs to appeal to black voters, and on that end his prospects seem to be increasingly bleak. The Agenda to Build Black Futures, from the Black Youth Project 100, a national organization with a strong presence in Chicago, calls specifically for
- Divestment from local, state, and federal policing and prisons and invest those dollars and resources in Black futures, including fully funding healthcare, social services, public schools, sustainable economic development projects and Black businesses that support Black communities.
As well as
- Pay for Generational Oppression: Reparations Revisited includes recommendations to establish separate commissions to examine systemic racial and economic discrimination and compensate for it, a national scholarship fund paid by colleges that benefited directly from slave labor, and restore voting rights to incarcerated people.
Given the strained finances of the city, the state, as well as an ongoing white middle class anxiety over minority neighborhoods that manifests itself in calls for increased spending on law enforcement, these goals seem far off to say the least. But the anger directed at the mayor, at the Illinois Democratic establishment – House Speaker Michael Madigan in particular – and Governor Rauner has been building steadily.
In this situation I am reminded of the class I took on Chicago Politics, taught by the great Paul Green at Roosevelt University. The text we used in the class The Mayors: The Chicago Political Tradition (edited by Professor Green and Melvin Holli) included this relevant passage, on how, in 1933, incoming Mayor Ed Kelly, faced with massive shortfalls in the city’s budget, came up with a plan for Chicago public schools which
…mandated the abolition of printing, physical education, and home economics in elementary schools, as well as printing and vocational guidance in the high schools. The program also increased teaching loads by 40 percent, shortened the school year by one month, reduced all teachers salaries 23.5 percent, and closed all special schools and special departments. Over thirteen hundred teachers lost their jobs.
This was alternative to closing down public schools altogether. The response from Chicago’s educational community was fierce, but brief. It was the Great Depression, and times were tough everywhere.
I am all for democracy, transparency in politics, and so on. But this is what competition over resources looks like. Nobody wants to be the loser, nobody wants to face budget cuts. But if there isn’t enough money, there isn’t enough money. You can’t make your vote turn into more money for just yourself and your community. You can form a coalition and enact meaningful fiscal reforms at the Federal level, but that’s much, much harder and it requires far greater discipline and trust between the communities involved.
Everybody wants their kids to go to the best schools. Not because education is important for its own sake, but because everyone knows that the highest paying jobs go mostly to people who attend the best schools. Hence, the battle over public education is a kind of proxy for the never ending war over scarce resources. We can work together, or we can work against each other. We can’t guarantee that nothing will go wrong, or that every arrangement will be perfectly just. But we can choose to make common cause or not.
Right now, Illinois seems to be more of a patchwork of feuding communities rather than a functional democracy. I wonder what the children of this state will learn from that.