Blog: The Educated Reporter

Gov. Rauner: Put Money in Classrooms, Not Bureaucracy

Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner speaks with attendees at the kickoff of EWA's 68th National Seminar in Chicago on April 20, 2015. (Stephanie Banchero)

In a wide-ranging speech on educational opportunity, teacher quality, school funding and accountability delivered at the kickoff of the Education Writers Association’s 68th National Seminar, Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner shared with reporters his vision for the future of education in the Prairie State.

Rauner, who took office in January, told the hundreds of education journalists assembled in Chicago for the EWA event that part of his controversial turnaround agenda includes bringing “a strategic focus” to the entire educational spectrum, from cradle to career.

“You name the issue we face within our nation, education may not be the sole solution to the problem, but it’s a major building block to the solution to the challenge,” Rauner said. “Nothing we do together as a society is more important than education.”

But teachers’ unions have blasted Rauner’s turnaround agenda, saying the proposal would curb union collective bargaining rights and benefits:

Rauner’s remarks came three days after news broke of a federal investigation into a no-bid contract awarded by Chicago Public Schools that led to schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett taking a leave of absence. As the Chicago Tribune reported Tuesday, Rauner is distancing himself from the controversy.

His personal goal, Rauner told the EWA audience, is to make education and job training in Illinois “the best in the world.”

But to get to that point of prominence will take work, Rauner said, lamenting that teachers in America aren’t treated well, that some schools and colleges misuse the state funds they receive and that schools aren’t truly held accountable for student growth.

Rauner touted Chicago Public Schools’ accountability model, which he said will be one of “the most rigorous measures of student growth in America.” The student growth measure, which is used as a significant factor in teacher evaluations, is based on teacher-designed performance tasks and standardized tests — one that students take in second through eighth grade, and another taken in high school.

At the same time, Rauner said success in the workplace and the economy as a whole is more dependent now on intellectual capital, and that education is the key to ensure every individual has a career.

The governor praised Germany’s educational model — which places a greater emphasis on vocational training — for recognizing “not every student is destined to go to a four-year college,” or pursue a graduate degree. Other countries, he said, place a greater emphasis on education in a way that allows them to excel and reward teachers for good performance, unlike many states in America.

Rauner stressed the need to make access to education more widespread, on the heels of a budget proposal that aims to cut nearly $400 million from higher education.

“We cannot tax our way to prosperity, not possible. We also cannot cut our way to prosperity,” Rauner said. “We need to bring financial discipline to our system. We’ve been spending money that we haven’t had for years and years. The real key is to grow our way to prosperity.”

Schools both at the K-12 and higher education levels, Rauner said, need to be more responsible with how they spend state funds.

A misplaced power structure and overall “broken system” is preventing Illinois from better serving students, Rauner said. Layers of bureaucracy at the local level and close ties between politics and governance in schools have resulted in corruption and insider dealing, Rauner said, alluding to the pending federal investigation into Chicago Public Schools.

“We have a lot of layers that consume the money,” Rauner said. “We’ve got to put the money with the teachers in the classroom with the students.”

Although Rauner’s state budget cuts from higher education, it proposes increasing funding for K-12 schools by $300 million. The governor said he wants to make education “the top priority for how we spend taxpayer dollars,” and that he hopes to target state funds to the poorest school districts.

But Rauner also said there needs to be a serious discussion and a shift in power from the teachers unions to parents and taxpayers.

“I love teachers,” Rauner said. “They have a voice, they should have a voice. But the schools don’t belong to the teachers union. They belong to the parents and the taxpayers of the system. That’s where the power should be. That’s where decisions should be made.”