Teacher Pensions Blog

At the end of April a Cook County judge dismissed a lawsuit brought by Chicago Public Schools against Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner. CPS alleged that both the state school funding formula and the teacher pensions system are unconstitutional because they lead to the systematic underfunding of the education of low-income students and students of color.

While Judge Franklin Valderrama recognized that the state’s school finance system is broken, he nevertheless dismissed the case. Plaintiffs do have the opportunity, however, to refile by May 26.

This puts CPS right back where it was when the suit was filed: facing a massive budget deficit that may force the district to end the school year weeks early. Unable to pay its bills, the state legislature passed a bill late last year allocating over $215 million to help CPS keep schools open for the full year.

The problem is that Governor Rauner vetoed the bill. He refused to send the necessary emergency funds to Chicago to alleviate a problem – one the state helped to create – without first winning significant reforms to the teacher pension system. In effect, Governor Rauner is holding Chicago students hostage. He is leveraging roughly 3-weeks of education for hundreds of thousands of students in exchange for pension reforms.

To be clear, the state’s finances are an unmitigated disaster and in desperate need of reform. But, the ends do not justify the means. Coercing the legislature to reform pensions by threatening harm to Chicago’s students smacks of extortion. But the gambit may be paying off for Gov. Rauner. The legislature is currently considering a bill to reform teacher pensions that may appease the governor and encourage him to release the millions for CPS.

There is a worry that the Speaker of the House, Michael Madigan, who himself hails from Chicago, will derail the process. Some view Madigan as a longstanding obstacle to important reforms in CPS. That view may be right in this instance. But the strategy of using students as a bargaining chip likely strengthened Madigan’s position.

Consider the recent example from Pennsylvania, the former Governor of Pennsylvania, Tom Corbett unsuccessfully employed a similar approach by withholding roughly $50 million from Philadelphia School District without concessions from the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. Governor Rauner may find a similar outcome here: threatening students is a poor political strategy.

The financial woes facing Chicago Public Schools are considerable. Fixing them requires compromise on both sides. But bargaining with students’ education is a recipe for disaster and may make reform even more difficult.