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Illinois GOP Sees State Takeover as Only Way to Save Chicago Public Schools

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis has accused Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner (R) of trying to do for her school system what Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) did for the city of Flint.

Rauner and Illinois’ top legislative Republicans announced a plan in late January for a state takeover of the financially troubled Chicago Public Schools, much as Snyder used an emergency manager to assume control of Flint, Detroit, and other troubled Michigan cities.

“The city doesn’t need a bailout,” State Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno (R) said. “It needs a renaissance.”

Senate President John Cullerton, a Chicago Democrat, told the Illinois News Network the GOP plan would never survive the Illinois General Assembly, which is controlled by members of his party.

“It’s mean-spirited and evidence of their total lack of knowledge of the real problems facing Chicago Public Schools,” Cullerton said in a statement.

CTU officials called Rauner’s proposal “wild” and said it was nothing but a union-busting move.

“Rauner did not get elected emperor, he got elected governor,” said Lewis. “With his plummeting approval rating, few Chicagoans or lawmakers will look to him as a savior of anything.”

However, State House Minority Leader Jim Durkin (R) said the GOP’s legislative proposals would neither force a bankruptcy nor mandate a bailout.

The GOP plan makes it clear that Illinois is not responsible for the school districts’ debt.

“This is not a bailout. Taxpayers statewide should not and will not be held responsible for historically wrong decisions made by Chicago politicians,” said Durkin.

However, Democrats say Gov. Rauner wants to wrest control of the schools from Chicago taxpayers.

The GOP plan would break up the Chicago Board of Education and allow the Illinois State Board of Education to set up an Independent Authority to run the CPS.

However, even though Lewis is sounding the danger klaxon, the unions that serve Chicago Public Schools employees seem safe. The Independent Authority would not be able to “unilaterally cancel or modify existing collective bargaining agreements.”

But Lewis doesn’t like this: While the GOP proposal would install a publicly elected school board — the Chicago Board of Education is now appointed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel — the proposal would prevent unions from contributing to the campaigns of people running for the Chicago Board of Education after the IA’s authority expires.

Radogno said the CPS left the legislature no choice, given the school system’s record of “constant crisis…that always ends up (with) a plea for more state money for Chicago at the expense of school districts in our suburban and downstate communities.”

Durkin said the CPS was facing massive layoffs, the possibility of a teachers strike, and even with credit downgrades to junk status the CPS was having to sell long-term bonds to pay for short-term operating expenses.

Emanuel was in New York last week trying to get investors interested in an $875 million bond sale.

“We didn’t come to this lightly,” Radogno said. “But the track record of Chicago and its public school system is abysmal.”

Lewis argued it was “an unelected authority” — the school board appointed by Mayor Emanuel —now running the schools that put the Chicago Public Schools in its precarious position, and turned it into damaged goods.

“Instead of rejecting failed policy, the governor is doubling down and holding Illinois citizens hostage with his austerity agenda,” she said, “which is why we continue to call for a tax on millionaires and the wealthy, for big banks to return money stolen through toxic swap deals, and for a tax increment financing surplus to be declared immediately.”

So this is not only an indictment of the CPS but also, by inference, Chicago Mayor Emanuel.

Emanuel told reporters gathered around him following a downtown breakfast event, “The governor can be his own worst enemy and can’t seem to get out of his own way.”

“If the governor was serious about helping Chicago students, he should start by proposing—and passing—a budget that fully funds education and treats CPS students like every other child in the state,” Emanuel spokeswoman Kelley Quinn said in a statement.

Forrest Claypool, the CEO of Chicago Public Schools, called the GOP plan nothing but “political theater.”

A frustrated Sen. Radogno complained Chicago Public Schools and teachers union officials were either unable or unwilling to understand the takeover plan and the motivation for the Republican’s proposal.

“The taxpayers and the children of the city’s schools deserve better,” she said. “What we are offering is a lifeline.”

Emanuel confirmed at a Friday press conference that officials aren’t ruling out a civil rights lawsuit to force the state to support the school system’s budget.

“It can’t continue given what’s going on. It’s unfair to students, it’s unfair to teachers and it’s unfair to taxpayers,” Emanuel said.