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Rauner, Racism, and Budget Roulette

Students are returning to the verdant hills of western New Hampshire from spring break for the final weeks of the semester at Dartmouth College.  Meanwhile, the blossoms are emerging in Cambridge where, in Harvard Yard, students are spread out with their books and laptops with dreams of summer travel, high end internships, and Ivy League graduate school admissions on their minds.

Not so at Chicago State University on the far south side of Chicago where students didn’t have a spring break and have now received notice, along with their professors and the rest of the staff to register their CSU keys for an inventory in anticipation of the school potentially running out of operating cash by the end of April.  The cancelling of spring break was an attempt to accelerate the semester in order to enable students to get credit for their work before the likelihood of the school suspending activities.  Now it appears that this truncated semester could be the last one for a while.

What have Dartmouth, Harvard, and Chicago State got to do with each other?  Not much, except their relationship to Illinois billionaire governor Bruce Rauner.  Rauner is a graduate of Dartmouth and Harvard; three of his daughters have attended Dartmouth.  Chicago State is in danger of shutting down because the state funded public institution with an endowment of a little over $3 million (Dartmouth has a $4.6 billion endowment; Harvard’s endowment sits at $37.6 billion) is one of the casualties of the budget impasse in Springfield.

The legislature and the governor have failed to agree on a budget for months, leaving the state without an authorized spending plan.  Few would argue with the fact that state finances, and in particular public employee pensions, are in dangerous straits.  In a sane world the two sides would sit down and negotiate a financial plan that, while undoubtedly painful for both, might set the state on a road toward health and, in the meantime, protect services to the most vulnerable.  But in Illinois we don’t live in a sane or just world.  The governor arrived in Springfield determined to use the budget crisis as a way to gut the strength of organized labor.  He refuses to honestly negotiate over the budget itself without placing demands for measures that would degrade the protections and rights that have enabled public employees to be lifted into the middle class.  Whatever you might think of Rauner’s political enemy, state house leader and Chicago ward boss Mike Madigan, he’s at least using his legislative majority to block Rauner’s anti-union crusade.

But the immediate result of gubernatorial roulette is that public institutions like Chicago State are being starved of desperately needed cash, not to mention the Chicago public schools which are also in desperate need of state assistance and are being told am emphatic no unless they accept draconian “reforms” – read cuts – in the pension plan.  The classroom doors at Chicago State may well be locked soon, something Rauner’s daughter, currently at Dartmouth, does not have to worry about.  And the city’s schools face a painful but understandable teachers’ strike over threats to their salaries, benefits, and classroom conditions.

What’s this got to do with race?  The student body at Chicago State is over 80% Black and Hispanic.  At Dartmouth Black and Hispanic students make up 15% of the student body. The students at Chicago State come from many of the impoverished neighborhoods of the city where median household incomes are about 15% of those in the toney north shore suburbs where Rauner spent part of his high school years and where Blacks and Hispanics make up less than 5% of the population.      

In other words, if you are Black, Hispanic, poor and from the city, you are far more likely to be punished by the ideological crusade of a white governor who has lived in privilege all his life.  Regardless of anyone’s intent, the impact of this is clear.  Ironically, many of the Chicago Public School teachers who now face retirement uncertainty call Chicago State their alma mater. 

We hear a lot in this political season about the anger of lower middle class white men.  To be sure, their disappointments and economic diminishments are significant.  But let’s get real.  When the public schools and public universities most at risk from budget slashing and union busting today are the very institutions that can give the best opportunity to poor Black and Hispanic young people, one must ask whether our political preoccupation with white men’s anger is all that well placed.  Promises by billionaire politicians funding their own campaigns for governor or president ring hollow to people for whom neither America nor Illinois have ever been all that great.

                               John H. Thomas

                               March 31, 2016

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