What happens when a philanthropist runs for office?
Governor Bruce Rauner answered this question by explaining the relationship between public education in Chicago and the Windy City’s struggles with academic transparency, a bloated bureaucracy, and severe fiscal mismanagement.
“We have a financial crisis and we have to fix that or I can’t fix the schools,” Rauner told an audience of more than 150 attendees at Creating a Hotspot for K-12 Innovation. “And I want the money going into the schools, not into the bureaucracy. And our bureaucracy in Chicago, our bureaucracy in Springfield is stunningly expensive.”
Rauner also wants to increase financial support for public education at the state level to reduce the inequities that result out of a heavy reliance on local property taxes.
“We overly rely on local property taxes basically more than any other state and I think that’s a violation of American principle,” said Rauner.
Prior to becoming governor, Rauner was an active philanthropist committed to improving Chicago schools. At one point, he chaired The Chicago Public Education Fund and together with his wife Diana, has given extensively to education reform and environmental causes in Chicago.
As a philanthropic project, Rauner eagerly sought to develop a student growth measure to determine whether Chicago students are actually demonstrating growth over time, rather than evaluating schools simply on state test passage rate. Upon presenting the idea to Chicago Public Schools (CPS) leadership, Rauner received a brutally honest response for why it could never happen.
“For the first time, parents in Chicago would really understand what’s going on in the schools,” CPS officials told Rauner at the time. “They would be upset, they would demand change, we can’t deliver better schools, and we would upset them for nothing.”
When asked about the role of donors in improving K-12 education, Rauner emphasized advocacy and political involvement.
“I went to the real extreme, as I tend to do, and went over to actually running for office. You guys don’t have to do that, but you do need to get involved in the political part of this,” said Rauner.
He continued, “A lot of philanthropists are like, ‘Oh, politics is dirty, and oh gosh I don’t want to be partisan.’ Well you know what? Education is political in America. It is. And if you run from politics, you aren’t going to have the kind of impact you need to have. That’s just a fact.”
Rauner’s experience provides a sense of just how entrenched the K-12 status quo is in Chicago, and the political hurdles he currently faces at the state level. He even deadpanned that schools in Chicago have only improved from “atrocious,” to “really bad.”
Throughout the conversation, he expressed disappointment surrounding the need to address the Illinois fiscal crisis before turning to education agenda items such as opportunity scholarships, course choice access, lifting the charter school cap, and Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) for students with special needs. Rauner also predicted that the strength of the teachers unions throughout Illinois will set the stage for a political battle when these items emerge next year.
“I wish I was pounding right now on education bills in the legislature. I can’t do everything at once, I’m pretty good but I’m not that good,” he joked.