How can we fight for funding in Illinois?

June 6, 2016

Laura Snedeker reports from Chicago on a forum to discuss activist strategies for challenging the warped priorities of the politicians deciding on the Illinois state budget.

ACTIVISTS FROM across Chicago participated in a panel discussion called "Fight for Funding: Budget Cuts and the Assault on Education" on June 1 at DePaul University.

The forum was organized to discuss how to fix the Illinois budget crisis, which threatens to close public schools and universities and cut funding for Monetary Award Program (MAP) grants, which, because they don't need to be repaid, provide a way for low-income students to attend Illinois colleges.

Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner is insisting on a 30 percent cut in funding for higher education, including funding for MAP grants and public universities such as Chicago State University (CSU) and Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU. Both CSU and NEIU could be forced to close down altogether in the fall if the state budget deadlock between the Democratic-controlled legislature and the Republican Rauner isn't resolved.

The governor is also holding hostage the state's expenditure for the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) unless the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) agrees to an increase in the amount that teachers pay into their pension plans as well as other major concessions.

Chicago teachers joined other unionists and community activists to rally on April 1
Chicago teachers joined other unionists and community activists to rally on April 1 (Joe Brusky)

The panelists were invited by the Fight for Funding coalition, which includes members of the DePaul Democrats, DePaul Socialists and IMPACT DePaul. The event attracted between 40 and 50 people.

The cuts to public education disproportionately affect Black students--86 percent of the students at Chicago State University are Black, and more than 85 percent of CPS students are Black or Latino. More than half of Black and Latino students at public universities in Illinois receive MAP grants.

"We live in a country where the education of its most vulnerable population is being compromised," said Ed Ward, a panelist and senior at DePaul. Ward is also a founding member of Men of Vision and Empowerment, a student group that addresses stereotypes affecting Black men.

Universities can help curb violence by providing social services such as internships, free mental health programs and swimming lessons, said Charles Preston, an activist organizing with #SaveCSU, a group of students fighting for funding for Chicago State University.

Preston talked about the disparity between the funding provided for social services and education and the funding provided to the Chicago Police Department, saying that while it only takes $36 million a year to run CSU, the state finds $4 million a day to operate the police. "All these fights are tied together," he said.

Preston and other panelists also addressed how to win demands from the state legislature. "I know the elected officials who represent me are going to go into those rooms and compromise," Preston said. "As soon as we hit those streets and hold them accountable, I had personal cell phone numbers of state representatives," who had never set foot in CSU.

"A lot of people, especially liberals, love quoting Martin Luther King Jr., but not embracing the radical that Martin Luther King Jr. was," he said. "Beyond the 'Dream,' he spoke about economics, he started the Poor People's Campaign, he was antiwar."

THE CUTS to public education are part of a broader strategy that includes cutting funding to public transit and other infrastructure and the eventual privatization and elimination of public services. The CTU has challenged the city on providing expensive contracts to build charter schools in the same neighborhoods as shuttered public schools.

As Tyler Zimmer, a philosophy instructor at NEIU, explained:

Austerity--that's what I want to call the problem we're facing. It means we have a political class, which by the way includes Democrats and Republicans, that is arguing not about whether or not we should cut, but how deep to cut.

Austerity is a racist policy because what does it do? It destroys schools on the South and West side. It affects all working class people, but disproportionately affects people of color. How do you challenge something that's multifaceted in its effects? What's the glue that binds struggles together?

"There is no reason why we should be cutting a single cent from education," Zimmer concluded. In fact, "we should be expanding it, radically."

The CTU has rejected the claim that Chicago is broke and therefore can't afford to keep public schools open, countering that the city is "broke on purpose" and demanding that the state tax the rich and financial transactions in order to fund public services.

Taxing the rich would require a progressive income tax, which means that the richest people in the state would pay a higher percentage of their income as taxes than the poorest people, he said. Currently, Illinois has a flat tax rate, which means that everyone, regardless of income, pays the same percentage in taxes.

"Let's not forget, we live in the richest country on the planet," said Zimmer. "Illinois is a rich state. A lot of rich people live in our state; our governor, Bruce Rauner, is one of them."

Additionally, a financial transactions tax, which would tax at a small percentage the buying and selling of financial assets such as stocks, bonds and derivatives, could raise at least $10 billion annually.

Illinois' regressive tax structure means that "when you and I go to the store and buy socks, we pay 10.25 percent on that purchase," he said. "If I buy a thousand shares of corn on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, you know how much tax I pay? Zero."

MAYOR RAHM Emanuel's refusal to negotiate on any transactions tax shows his allegiance to the bankers on LaSalle Street over the students, parents and teachers of Chicago, said Natasha Carlsen, a teacher and activist with the CTU.

CPS is cutting more than $100 million from special education, which is supposed to be guaranteed by federal and state law, in order to pay $240 million to Bank of America for toxic interest-rate swaps. "Rahm and his unelected school board have not once attempted to renegotiate these toxic swaps," Carlsen continued. "My students are less important than banks."

Whether these demands can be met depends on how much the activists fighting for funding can bend the will of politicians.

"It wasn't just us at NEIU, it's wasn't just Chicago State, it wasn't just this or that school, but everyone coming out at once," said Zimmer. Labor unions like the CTU have the power to "potentially disrupt the economy, shut things down."

"Teachers are going to go out again, and they're going to need our support," he continued, referring to the CTU's rejection of a contract deal that would amount to a 7 percent pay cut for teachers. “The CTU is battling not just a bad contract, but a threat from CPS to lay off thousands of teachers and close schools.

The rally on April 1 helped bring together different struggles, from low-wage workers at McDonald's fighting for a $15 minimum wage to students, professors and public school teachers and their allies, said Linda, a staff member at NEIU who spoke during the discussion. "Our struggle is one struggle," she said. "The people we're fighting are the same enemy."

DePaul students who are ready to organize around funding for MAP grants will need to link their struggles with those of organized labor and fight for broader demands. Especially important is connecting with the social forces that have the power to win the demand of taxing the rich.

"That money's going to come from elsewhere unless we increase the budget," said Sam, a student at DePaul. "Yes, MAP matters, but we need to focus on the problem, which is austerity in Illinois and the fact that the richest in our state are making money on our backs."

"The labor movement has the most disruptive power of any movement," Zimmer said, as it "has the power to be the glue to hold together all these struggles." The April 1 day of action showed how withholding labor can "grind the wheels of the economy to a halt."

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