Dan, Want to Prove You're a Leader? Push Pat on Education

With less than a month to go before Illinois' sleepy gubernatorial primary, Comptroller Dan Hynes has failed to make a strong case for why he'd be better than Pat Quinn, the progressive gadfly turned accidental governor.

Sure, Quinn has been maddeningly indecisive since he took over in January. He's failed to get his tax increases through the legislature and has proved to be a weak administrator in instance after instance. More recently, he's presided over a breathtakingly inept program to release non-violent inmates from prison -- one that led to the release of violent inmates who promptly committed new offenses.

But despite Quinn's bungling, Hynes hasn't really been able to gain much traction: he's trailing by 26 points in a recent Chicago Tribune poll, despite the fact that he has been an effective and popular statewide official for 11 years.

Why is Hynes performing so poorly? Probably because he hasn't made the case for how he'd do better than Quinn on issues that actually matter.

After all, the only substantive issues Hynes has addressed at length are related to the budget, for which he's proposed a slightly different way to raise the state's income tax. For the past few months, Illinoisans have been treated to a debate about whether Quinn's plan to hike both the tax rate and the personal exemption is better or worse than moving to a straight progressive tax. Captivating, huh?

What's unfortunate about the narrowness of the campaign is that it has failed to illuminate issues like education, on which Quinn has done a reasonable job but a considerably weaker one than what we should expect from a Democratic governor.

Either candidate could yet solidify himself as the "education candidate" by proposing much-needed reforms to the state's administrative system and by coming out forcefully for making education funding more equitable. And while the door is open to either of them, it would really behoove Hynes -- who will soon be out of a job if he doesn't get his campaign message in gear -- to jump on the issue.

Consider the lay of the land:

In less than three weeks, the U.S. Department of Education -- led by Illinoisan Arne Duncan -- will begin dispensing money from a $4.3 billion fund designed to reward states that make progressive changes to their education systems. Illinois could win a badly-needed $400 million, according to the advocacy group Advance Illinois.

Yet, to date, nearly all the leadership on the state's Race to the Top application has come from Christopher Koch, the superintendent of the Illinois State Board of Education. Koch and his staff have done a yeoman's job in corralling the nearly 900 independent school districts in the state behind Illinois' application and in brokering an agreement with the state's teachers unions to lift the cap on the number of charter schools.

But they could certainly use help: officials at the state board of education say they would love some involvement from the governor, but so far have been unable to find much of a place on his agenda.

One such place where leadership from the governor would help is on legislation being developed by Koch's staff to expand alternative-certification programs and modernize the state's certification requirements, steps that would help break down the artificial barriers that keep qualified teachers from the classroom. The legislation is likely to be contentious when it is introduced in the spring, and strong backing from the governor -- and, better yet, both gubernatorial candidates -- would certainly help smooth its path to passage.

Equally important is the need to create a state agency to take over failing schools, an essential complement to strong standards at the state level -- and something that would require the governor's full backing to accomplish. The Chicago Public Schools realized long ago that there are some schools in which the culture of failure is so pervasive that they must be closed and reconstituted under new leadership. Ensuring that the state board of education has similar powers over the whole state is crucial -- especially for my native south suburbs, where schools continually fail their students yet have no reform-minded CPS chief executive looking over their shoulders.

Apart from Race to the Top, there is one issue that, left unaddressed, is a millstone on the state's efforts to reform its schools: the grossly unequal school funding system based on local property taxes. This manner of funding schools locks in inequality by ensuring that affluent districts are better funded.

For years, State Senator James Meeks has been on a lonely crusade to blow up the property-tax system and replace it with one that uses higher income taxes and sales taxes to fund the state's schools more equitably (this concept has long been known as a "tax swap," though that term has become radioactive in recent years). In fact, one incarnation of the "tax swap" passed the Illinois Senate in May, when Meeks pushed his bill through by capitalizing on the fact that it would also help the state get its fiscal house in order.

Though Quinn would have probably signed Meeks' bill had it gotten to his desk, he demonstrated almost no interest in the education funding reform aspect of the bill -- as seen by the fact that Quinn's own budget, while not cutting education, did nothing to take on the property-tax funding system.

Meeks' bill, which would have made the tax system more progressive while bringing in over $5 billion per year, passed the Senate almost entirely due to the efforts of Senate President John Cullerton and Meeks himself. With strong backing from a governor, such a bill should be able to pass the House as well -- particularly if Speaker Michael Madigan, who deserves a large share of the blame for not moving on the Meeks legislation, puts his muscle behind it.

While Quinn has a few accomplishments on education -- like appointing a high-profile advisory council and signing a capital bill that provides $3.6 billion for school construction -- his record is patchy overall. In fact, due to Quinn's battles with the unions on teacher pensions, Hynes has already won the support of the Illinois Federation of Teachers -- despite having said virtually nothing about education.

Although education was once a signature issue for progressive Democrats, neither candidate has distinguished himself on this front -- a fact that creates an opening for the comptroller. If Hynes seizes the mantle of education reform -- by coming out forcefully for revamping the education system and providing more equitable funding -- it might go some way toward pulling his candidacy out of its calcified state.