Education gaining steam as top issue in governor's race

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We’re in the third week of the gubernatorial campaign and the drumbeat out of the Gov. Pat Quinn camp is unmistakable: education, education, education.

After laying out in his budget address a five-year blueprint to dedicate $6 billion in education funding as well as promote a birth through five program, Quinn last week pushed for a $50 million increase in the state’s need-based financial aid program for higher education.

The campaign also last week dispatched running mate Paul Vallas, a former Chicago Public Schools CEO, to hit GOP challenger Bruce Rauner for wanting to lower the state’s income tax — translating that into Rauner favoring “draconian cuts” in education.

“Either you don’t understand the budget or in effect, you’re deferring the tough questions until after the election,” Vallas charged.

It’s true, Rauner’s camp is not ready to lay out its education reform proposal.

Rauner spokesman Mike Schrimpf told Early & Often details will come “when the time is right for the campaign.”

While Rauner has called himself a passionate advocate for education reform and has donated millions of dollars to the cause, his campaign has chosen to emphasize a different drumbeat of issues: “Quinnocchio” broke promises by proposing to make permanent the hike to the state income tax.

Rauner went on a “broken promises” tour earlier this week, putting the focus back on Quinn’s leadership and away from calls for Rauner to provide specifics of his own.

Quinn is hammering Rauner for not showing his cards on the budget. On Friday, the governor’s campaign released a Timex watch that will count the days until Rauner fills in the blanks.

It may be a long wait, said Thom Serafin, a political consultant who is not working for either candidate.

“When you’re the challenger [the minute] you put your plans out then you’re criticized by the opposition. A lot of guys have a tendency to hold those things until after Labor Day. You don’t want to give every think tank and every opposition research guy a lot of time to take your plan, dissect it, and destroy it,” Serafin said. “If I’m on Rauner’s team, we’ll have an education plan, but we’ll do it on our timeline and we’ll do it effectively.”

Rauner spent the primary campaigning as the anti “government union boss” candidate but has seemingly softened anti-union rhetoric so far in the general election.

He has said he supports merit pay for teachers, would support reforming automatic tenure for teachers, supports an expansion of charter schools and supports a school voucher program.

He hasn’t offered details on where the money would come from. His campaign generally says cuts can be found by reforming Central Management Services, cutting back on Medicaid fraud and overall “growing the state’s economy” so there’s more revenue to work with. Rauner supports drastically changing pensions in Illinois as well, by moving public sector workers into 401k style retirement accounts.

Rauner has said that Quinn should move the income tax back to 3 percent from 5 percent. Quinn’s people charge that can only mean education— the biggest pot of money that the state isn’t mandated to fund — would be pulverized.

“Obviously, it’s up to Quinn and Vallas to push him on the details,” Serafin said. For Rauner’s part, he’s holding his cards as he attempts to push focus on Quinn. “Historically, if you can establish the referendum on the incumbent, you’re ahead of the game.”

Quinn’s people say they have plenty of specifics about what they’re doing to adequately pay for schools in Illinois.

“The No. One issue right now is properly funding public education. If nothing is done, education will face extreme and radical cuts,” Quinn spokeswoman Brooke Anderson said. “Illinois will never succeed by starving its schools.”

If Rauner’s newest ad is any indication, his campaign strategy is to soften up the candidate that Quinn has likened to the greedy “Mr. Burns” character on the Simpsons. The ad Rauner’s campaign released last week shows Rauner and his wife, Diana, sitting on a couch, laughing and bantering about how “cheap” Rauner is while promoting Diana’s creds as a Democrat.

Unfortunately for voters curious about his budget and education plans, Rauner may be on that couch for awhile.

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