Here in Illinois our governor will either be a Democratic billionaire businessman philanthropist or a Republican multi-millionaire businessman philanthropist. Both have a long record of investing in education reforms, despite sharp divides in their platforms and philosophies.
So what does the gubernatorial race portend for the future of Illinois education policy?
Let’s start with the challenger
Democrat J.B. Pritzker’s investments have focused on researching and expanding early childhood education, a reform issue that’s long been beloved by free-market warriors and die-hard unionists alike. He funded the creation of the Pritzker Consortium on Early Childhood Development at the University of Chicago and is a founding supporter of the First Five Years Fund, an organization focused on comprehensive, quality early care and learning programs for children from birth to age 5.
Unsurprisingly, a cornerstone of Pritzker’s education platform is to make “bold moves” toward universal preschool, by making “incremental” expansions toward that goal.
He argues, “Early childhood education is a critically important part of a successful education system that strengthens families and communities. Research clearly shows that investments in high-quality early learning opportunities, starting at birth and through age 5, increases children’s school readiness, raises high school graduation rates, boosts labor participation and improves health outcomes.”
Sure, early childhood education is a slam-dunk, but it is not a panacea that will solve all our school woes. Its positive effects fade, especially for children living in poverty, most quickly in low-performing, under-resourced, high-need schools.
Where is he on school choice? In this Chicago Tribune questionnaire, he wrote that he’s against school vouchers and favors a moratorium on charter school expansion. “There is enough work to do to bring the existing charters up to acceptable educational standards,” he says.
OK, so where is Pritzker on school funding inequities? The teacher pension crisis? School district consolidation? Standardized testing? Teacher quality? Accountability under the Every Student Succeeds Act? As it turns out, mostly silent.
So if Pritzker is elected, don’t expect any bold moves on the education front. It looks like he will hew to the safest possible path as a Chicago Democrat running for the state’s top political job: More money for traditional schools, but no strings attached to make sure that extra cash is spent wisely or improves results.
What About the Guy Currently In Charge?
As for the Republican incumbent, Gov. Bruce Rauner is more of a known commodity. His educational philanthropy is broader in scope and his reform philosophy is well-defined. But his track record as a state leader has infuriated Democrats and alienated many in his own party.
Like Pritzker, Rauner is a big fan of expanding early childhood education, a commitment no doubt shaped by his wife’s role as president of the Ounce of Prevention Fund.
As a philanthropist, he has invested heavily in expanding charter schools, creating turnaround school models, private school scholarships for at-risk students and achievement-based compensation systems for public school teachers and principals. He’s unabashedly anti-union and pro-school choice.
He told the Tribune, “I strongly support charter schools. Students don’t deserve to be trapped in a failing school. They have the right to a great education just like students in communities with strong public schools. As governor, we made a historic reform of achieving parity for charter school funding with public schools for the first time ever.”
He also took a fair share of credit for a historic bipartisan school bill passed last year, which secured a new and more equitable funding formula but was tied to a divisive scholarship tax credit program, which allows low- and middle-income families to apply for private school scholarships paid by donors who earn state tax credits for their donations.
Regardless of which candidate prevails, it’s clear this next phase of the campaign will not focus on education issues, save for a few politically safe promises around expanding early childhood education. That’s a shame, because last year’s school funding bill only tackled one of the issues that face all Illinois schools.