Gov. Bruce Rauner said at Belleville East on Thursday morning: “We can fund our schools.”
He told students and administrators repeatedly that education is the highest of priorities, but was just as quick to assign blame for lack of funding to “those Chicago Democrats.” The governor was at the school to visit a “high-performing” school, he said, noting the district’s high scores on the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers test as well as the district’s efforts to seek federal funding to increase Advanced Placement offerings.
“Education is the most important thing we do as a community,” Rauner told the administrators and media in the school’s library. “Nothing is more important. Nothing.”
He added, “Illinois brings in $33 billion. We can fund our schools.”
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The governor said “there’s no reason to cut school funding,” but the area school administrators were more appreciative of his goal of 100 percent funding in the future. School funding has been prorated for several years, which means schools have not been fully funded.
“Full funding is essential,” said Harmony District 175 Superintendent Pam Leonard after the governor’s speech. “We’ve had nothing but cuts and running on a shoestring. ... That’s what I wanted to hear.”
In remarks welcoming Rauner to the school, Superintendent Jeff Dosier said they were grateful for the existing budget, and hopeful that the fiscal 2017 budget will also pass.
Several area districts are awaiting hundreds of thousands of dollars in categorical payments, which include transportation costs, special education and lunch programs.
East St. Louis District 189 reports being owed more than $1 million, with the last payment being in December. District 118 is waiting on nearly half a million, after receiving a payment this week. Cahokia District 187 says the special education program needs are $5 million more than what the district receives in state aid.
“Proration, special education and a reworking of the funding formula are the biggest issues,” said Cahokia Superintendent Art Ryan, who was not at the event.
Rauner repeatedly urged administrators to pressure legislators to provide a state budget, saying leading Democrats are threatening to withhold that money unless changes are made to Chicago Public Schools.
“The president of the Senate is looking to hold up school funding unless Chicago gets a lot more money,” Rauner said. “We cannot allow that to happen.”
Rauner said the state is the worst in the nation for funding schools, which forces the districts to rely on local property taxes. The state’s budget forces companies to reconsider Illinois for operations, he said, adding that a lot of potential goes to Indiana and “it’s not the weather.”
One thing schools can do, Rauner said, is something Belleville District 201 has already started: applying for federal Equal Opportunity grants. Those grants would help fund more AP classes at Belleville East.
East currently offers calculus courses, biology, chemistry, physics and psychology classes.
Brian Mentzer, assistant superintendent of Belleville District 201, said the equal opportunity grant would expand AP and honors classes, giving the schools more ability to “focus on those who may be under-represented.”
“Without that grant, we’ll continue to incrementally increase offerings,” he said.
“I’m still trying to figure out if PARRC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) is a good idea or not,” Rauner said in an extended response to a student’s question about the ACT giving way to the SAT in the state. He had explained that the state’s bidding process meant the government had to award the contract to the lowest bidder.
“This is one of those regulations I’d love to get rid of,” he said, saying he preferred the ACT for continuity.
Rauner said the now-discontinued ISAT was “not very rigorous” and had been politically manipulated.
“Student testing is a little bit of a mess,” he said.
Rauner said what he’d like to see is a way to measure student growth from kindergarten through high school, “in an objective way that can’t be politicized.”
“Chicago Public Schools has been mismanaged for years,” Rauner told the students. He suggested that school system should consider bankruptcy, a move that could protect jobs while restructuring the district’s debt.
“I don’t want you to have to pay for a bailout,” he said.
Students afterward admitted to knowing little about the state’s larger educational quandaries.
“I did not know anything about Chicago,” said senior Victor Ly.
Ly takes AP chemistry and AP Physics, and has previously taken AP English and AP history. Federal grants the district is applying for would increase the number of AP courses the schools can offer.
“He came here to open the eyes of high-schoolers — us high-schoolers will be voting soon. It opened my eyes to the bigger picture of Illinois. I never thought about it until he came in today,” Ly said.
Senior Joseph Heard, who has been nominated for the Air Force Academy, said he is taking both AP physics and AP calculus this year, and would happily take more if they were available.
Heard, who says his military future is “kind of a legacy”, said he now understands the attention on Chicago schools, “but don’t think it’s completely fair.”
Rauner did surprise Heard in one way. “He was very relaxed,” Heard said.
The governor has been visiting schools throughout the state.
Rauner stopped in a couple of classrooms on the way to speak to the students, including one of the new forensic science classes at East. He spoke to the class for a few minutes, praising both the students and the “terrific teachers at Belleville East.”
As the entourage of the governor, his aides, security, students and media filed out, teacher Amy Seel moved quickly to pick up where they’d left off.
“So a person with Type A blood...”
Late Thursday, SEIU Healthcare reported to the News-Democrat that some of its members had tried to attend the news conference that area school district administrators also attended. School district officials confirmed that a small group arrived on campus after the press conference began and were asked to leave.
One woman said she was initially allowed onto campus but turned away at the media room’s door.
“It wasn’t like I broke laws, they allowed me in and then they rejected me and didn’t explain why,” said Deaundra Tunstull, a member of SEIU and a home child-care provider. Tunstull does not have a child at Belleville East, but says she was among four from SEIU who wanted to question the governor about lack of state funding for child care providers.
Other actions by the governor
▪ Rauner told the students, and later school administrators, that there are 15 state agencies tasked with education-related duties, and none of them talk to one another. His executive order last week created a Governor’s Cabinet on Children and Youth, which brings together the heads of those agencies with the lieutenant governor.
He wants these agencies to work together, he said, because several agencies could be helping a family without knowing of the overlap.
▪ Last week, the governor vetoed a bill that would have provided Monetary Award Program grants to as many as 130,000 eligible students, saying $721 million proposal would increase the state’s deficit. Instead, he wants legislation that would provide $1.6 billion for higher education, but only if the Unbalanced Budget Response Act passes.
▪ He also announced last week his support of legislation that his office says could save public school districts in the state more than $200 million by providing relief from unfunded mandates.
During the tour led by Principal Jason Karstens and 10 East students, the principal asked Rauner if he was a Cardinals or Cubs fan.
“I support whatever the people of Illinois tell me to support,” he said.