About 25 years ago, Illinois School Supt. Robert Leininger embarked on crusade to alert the people of this state that their school funding system was a failure.
Appointed by Republican Gov. Jim Edgar, Leininger in the early 1990s became the most outspoken school superintendent in Illinois history.
He said that while politicians always ran for office claiming to be on the side of school children, none of them was willing to fall on their swords for those kids and demand a state income tax hike just to fund the schools.
Without such a tax hike, Leininger warned, many school districts would go into debt, property taxes would skyrocket and the quality of education would continue to erode — especially in poorer areas.
Other states had solved the same problems, he said, but that was always because a political leader was willing to risk his career to save future generations of children. Illinois had no one with that kind of courage.
And no one ever disputed the truth of Leininger’s message, which included accusations that the state school funding formula was so complicated even state lawmakers couldn’t explain it.
Over the ensuing decades there would be several blue ribbon state panels and nationwide studies that all concluded the school funding system in Illinois was broken. Nothing changed.
Property taxes continued to increase. School systems went into greater debt. The state’s share of education funding dropped from about 38 percent to 25 percent.
The state even failed to make payments into the teachers pension fund and borrowed from it.
James Meeks, the pastor of Salem Baptist Church in Chicago, ran for the Illinois Senate as an independent in 2002 and won. Afterward, he made school funding reform his priority.
He told anyone who would listen that the school funding formula was a disaster and proposed an income tax increase and property tax swap. When his bill couldn’t get out of committee, he launched a series of protest marches, taking Chicago school children to New Trier High School in Winnetka to emphasize the disparities in school funding.
Working with Republicans and Democrats, Meeks eventually got a very complicated tax bill passed out of the Senate that would have raised $5.2 billion in new revenue, with much of that money — more than $2 billion — going to education.
House Speaker Michael Madigan killed the bill, enraging Meeks, who after leaving office endorsed Bruce Rauner, a Republican, for governor.
Rauner named Meeks to the state board of education, where he serves as chairman.
You may be aware that a bill has passed the state Legislature altering the school funding formula. It does not send billions of new dollars to education. It is, however, aimed at sending what meager new revenues there are to poorer school districts.
Rauner has vowed to veto the measure, claiming it includes a bailout for the Chicago Public Schools pension system.
I tried to reach Meeks this week to see what he has to say about all of this. I was told by the state board’s communications director that Meeks is not doing any interviews on this topic.
So the guy who was once the outspoken champion of school children is now silent.
This state is in deep financial trouble now. The legislature, over the governor’s override, passed that long-needed income tax hike but very little of that money is going to education. Even with the tax hike, the state doesn’t have enough money to pay its past-due bills.
Leininger did his best imitation of Paul Revere, shouting over and over that the crisis was coming. But there was no leader willing to fall on his sword for the school children of Illinois.