On the chopping block in Illinois

February 1, 2016

Tyler James analyzes the governor's plans to slash public higher education in Illinois.

IN CASE anyone had any doubts, it's indisputable: Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner is determined to destroy public education at all levels, from K-12 through university.

Whereas other political leaders in the state capital of Springfield have allowed our schools and universities to be slowly sapped of much-needed funds over decades, Rauner's approach is aggressive and fast-paced. He's not content with the slow death of public education. He wants blood, and he wants it now.

You might have thought this couldn't happen in a liberal-leaning, union-dense state like Illinois. But you'd be wrong--it can and will happen unless we do something to stop it.

Rauner is currently holding Illinois's public universities hostage, effectively strangling the system by refusing to allow a budget to be passed until he gets his way. "His way" means a 30 percent across-the-board cut in funding, among other things. And there's no reason to think that he's in a rush to make a deal and settle for less. Time is on his side.

Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner
Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner (Tricia Scully)

The fact is that Rauner simply doesn't care whether many of our state's public universities continue to exist. He and his wealthy friends and their families don't rely on the institutions that are teetering on the precipice of collapse unless a viable budget is passed soon.

People like our governor--whose income in 2014 was $57.5 million, or about $160,000 a day--don't send their kids to schools like Chicago State, Governor's State, Western Illinois or Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU). These are schools whose students are mostly working class. These are schools with high percentages of students of color--86 percent of students at Chicago State are Black and about 63 percent of those enrolled at NEIU are non-white.

The same could be said of population of students who attend the Chicago Public Schools system, which Rauner wants to take into receivership so he can bust unions, renege on pension obligations and sell off the schools to charter operators.

RAUNER'S PLAN to bulldoze what's left of public education and turn the remains over to his profit-hungry friends in the private sector is not one you would expect to be wildly popular among ordinary Illinoisans. And indeed, it isn't popular at all. Most people, after all, don't cheer when a historic university is forced to shut down mid-semester because of a deliberate campaign to starve it of funding.

Rauner knows his plans are unpopular. But he doesn't care. And why should he? He's never had a democratic mandate for his agenda. He took office by winning the votes of only 25 percent of eligible voters--many of whom, if recent polls are any indication, probably wouldn't vote for him again today.

He's not now--and never has been--interested in mobilizing the majority of people in Illinois. He's counting on passivity.

But if this democratic deficit is a source of frustration for those of us being harmed by Rauner's crusade, it also points to his biggest vulnerability. Rauner's strategy--to hold the state hostage and sabotage essential public services until legislators give him exactly what he wants--can only succeed if we remain idle and isolated.

He's counting on this battle being fought behind closed doors in Springfield, not in the public sphere. But we can't let this happen. We have to stand up and fight back, just as students at Chicago State are doing, planning a walkout for February 3.

We have to make clear that Illinois is a rich state with plenty of money to not only maintain, but expand funding for public education at all levels (just as most other states are doing). The money is there, and we only need to increase taxes on the rich to get it.

For example, if Illinois were to adopt the same progressive state income tax system that Iowa has, it could raise over $6.3 billion in additional revenue while still reducing the income tax burden on a majority of taxpayers. Progressive measures like a financial transaction tax could raise billions more that could then be invested in education and other popular services.

HOW CAN we mobilize to stop Rauner's attacks and turn the tide? Here, creativity is key and a multi-pronged approach essential.

We would kidding ourselves if we thought the strongest weapon in our arsenal was to send letters to politicians in Springfield pleading with them to do the right thing. This is the terrain where Rauner and his enablers on both sides of the isle are strongest.

We are strongest when we mobilize together and bring the weight of public condemnation down on Rauner and those helping him push through austerity measures. We're liable to be most successful when we walk out together and publicly march in the greatest possible numbers to send a message that we won't accept the closure of Chicago State or any other school or university in Illinois.

What's the next step? Luckily, we don't need to reinvent the wheel--we can take cues from recent cases where people in our position fought back with some success. In fact, we can look to what people in Chicago are already doing to disrupt business as usual and force this matter to get the attention it deserves.

We can also learn from the 2011 occupation of the Wisconsin state Capitol building. While this story didn't end the way many hoped it would, it's important to remember the effect that the Capitol occupation had. It halted Scott Walker in his tracks. It electrified workers all over the U.S. and even made waves internationally.

The key mistake that sent the movement into reverse was the decision to end the occupation and channel efforts into a long, drawn-out campaign to recall Walker and replace him with an uninspiring Democrat who had no connection to the movement and little sympathy for its demands. The lesson we should draw here is that Capitol occupations and mass demonstrations are effective tactics that put power brokers like Walker or Rauner on the defensive.

Another useful example to consider is the success our sisters and brothers in Montreal have had in stopping attempts to attack public-sector workers and cut back on education. On December 9, public-sector workers in Montreal staged the largest general strike in Quebec's history, with more than 400,000 walking off the job.

As Ashley Smith reported, "The combined struggle of the unions, students and community organizations decisively shifted public opinion against [Quebec's right-wing] government." This comes after a series of massive demonstrations by students in 2012 to thwart an effort by the government to drastically increase the cost of university education.

This is a do-or-die moment for tens of thousands of students, public workers, faculty and staff in Illinois. If Rauner's cuts proceed, huge numbers of people will lose their jobs, see their education imperiled, and watch as their communities are devastated.

We need to be talking about how to put together statewide, coordinated actions that involve as many unions, student organizations and supporters as possible. We need to be talking about large-scale walkouts and strikes. Those who work or study on college campuses find themselves in a unique situation where administrators have little reason to interfere with militant job actions they would normally oppose. After all, many of these people will lose their jobs, too, if our schools go under.

The bottom line is that we need to send a clear message that we will not stand for the destruction of our schools and universities by an out of touch, aggressive 1 Percenter who could care less about the lives of the people his actions effect.

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