Policy Could Help Bridge Bipartisan Gaps Amid Budget Crisis

Oct 27, 2015

There’s no end in sight to the political gridlock in Springfield. But one group says it has an education plan that could get Republican and Democratic support.

Credit Carl Nelson / WNIJ

It’s a new twist on an old idea: corporations paying money into a special fund. They’d get tax breaks. And parents would get cash to use for the school of their choice.

Governor Bruce Rauner has drawn a hard line when it comes to his pro-business, anti-union policies. And Democrats - they’re not crossing over. It’s part of why there’s a budget stalemate.

But there’s someone who thinks education is where Rauner and Democrats overlap.

Myles Mendoza works on education policy - including school choice issues. He’s worked with Rauner on education policy before Rauner had the keys to the governor’s mansion.

Mendoza’s coalition is quietly pushing an idea that looks like school vouchers…although he doesn’t call it vouchers.

It’s an idea that has had bipartisan support in the past…but also tough opposition.

WBEZ got a copy of a draft of Mendoza’s plan. It hasn’t been introduced in the Statehouse, but Mendoza’s looking for a lawmaker to back it.

It’s early in the process, but Mendoza was willing to talk through his thinking. He was also willing to explain why -- in spite of all of the financial issues facing Illinois -- lawmakers should back tax breaks to corporations.

“We’re giving out tax credits for people to have luxury sports cars, we’re giving tax credits for all kinds of things and I think kids having access to quality education should be a high priority on the list of where we’re allocating tax credits,” Mendoza said.

Illinois doesn’t really give tax credits for buying luxury cars, but the state has offered them to companies threatening to leave.

Mendoza’s point is this: Tax breaks would be an incentive for a corporation -- or even an individual -- to contribute cash to a scholarship fund. Families, including middle class families, could apply for some of that money so they could send their kid to, say, a private school they couldn’t otherwise afford.

Mendoza says charter schools...parochial schools...some trade unions - are getting behind this idea.

“It’s just a variety of people that normally wouldn’t come around the same table that have to support kids getting a quality education,” Mendoza said.

And someone else whose outlook could fit in with Mendoza’s plan is Governor Rauner.

Mendoza says leaders in Springfield know what he’s working on - but Rauner’s office wouldn’t comment.

Again - it’s early. But there are signs it’s a concept Rauner could like.

During last year’s campaign for public office, Rauner talked a lot about his support of school choice and charter schools. He chose a Democrat who pushed for school vouchers to lead the state board of education.

So let’s say Rauner’s in. Mendoza would still need Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan. Madigan supported vouchers in the past - even though it ultimately failed.

There is opposition. Teachers unions can’t stand Mendoza’s plan. They say it is vouchers, plain and simple - and they say Mendoza’s trying to call it something else because vouchers are controversial.

Dan Montgomery heads the Illinois Federation of Teachers.

“The reason they don’t want to call it vouchers is because vouchers have been highly discredited around the country as having no beneficial public effects, no beneficial effects on education,” Montgomery said.

Montgomery doesn’t hide the contempt in his voice, when he talks about giving tax breaks to corporations and wealthy people.

“I think it’s just unconscionable,” Montgomery said.

Now - Mendoza takes issue with calling his plan vouchers. He says vouchers use public money - and this calls for private money.

But giving out tax breaks - that is taxpayer money. And that complicates things.

Because there’s something else competing for political capital at the statehouse: changing the formula the state uses to calculate funding for schools. And while all this is going on behind the scenes - it does look like Rauner’s planning for an education push after the budget impasse - assuming it’s ever resolved.

Here’s what Rauner said last week when he was asked by a reporter why he’s been quiet on education.

“We’re actually working on big, big reforms in education,” Rauner said. “We haven’t announced them yet because they’re all being formulated and it’s in process. In the coming months, we’re going to see some big announcements on things we’re gonna do to improve education.”

The question is this: With the political atmosphere in Springfield so toxic right now, is there any education plan so appealing that it could actually bring the two sides together?