Governor Rauner and the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad voucher program

By Andy Hatem

August was eventful, to say the least. White supremacists and Nazis marched on Charlottesville, proudly and publicly defending their beliefs. An eclipse darkened skies across the country. The Gulf Coast was submerged by thousand-year floods. Then, on Monday, reporters heard the most shocking news of all, straight from the Illinois Executive Mansion.

In a press release, Governor Rauner shared some thoughts on Speaker of the House Mike Madigan. That in itself wasn’t unusual; Madigan has been Rauner’s favorite piñata since the governor took office. But this time, Rauner wasn’t bashing the speaker. After the Illinois House passed a school funding bill, with a $75 million tax credit for private scholarships that Rauner requested, this was the governor’s response:

“I want to thank Speaker Madigan, Leader Durkin and their staff members for finding common ground that will reverse the inequities of our current school funding system.”

I want to thank Speaker Madigan. Not long ago, there wasn’t a soul in Illinois who expected to hear our governor say those words. After $75 million in tax credits for private scholarships were added to a, with the express purpose of securing Rauner’s signature. The credits did just that, and helped put a fairer school funding system within reach. They even pushed the governor to thank his favorite bogeyman. Just don’t look for them to help Illinois students.

To understand why, look at the tax credit’s beginnings. After Governor Rauner vetoed a bipartisan school funding bill, Cardinal Blase Kupich entered the scene, and proposed a program to support scholarships for private and parochial education. Cardinal Kupich’s motivations are easily understood; this tax credit will prop up enrollment at parochial schools, which has fallen sharply in recent years. He insists this won’t be the only effect, and maintains the credit will put more low-income students in good schools. In theory, this should raise graduation rates and help our state’s neediest families. But that’s the theory. As written, the credit seems likely to have the opposite effect, subsidizing the flight of upper-class students from public schools while doing little to help working poor families.

Why? Any explanation needs to start with the credit’s loose requirements for scholarship recipients. Through this credit, a family of four earning $73,000 – more than 4 in 5 Illinois householdswould be eligible for scholarships. Previous recipients can qualify with incomes as high as $97,000, a figure that would place them in the top 10%. To receive a scholarship, in other words, students don’t need to be poor or even middle-class. To put it to use, meanwhile, a family would need to cover the difference between a $5,000 scholarship and private-school tuition – $12,273 at the average high school. With that price tag, a quarter of households couldn’t cover a year’s tuition, let alone four. The families that can, by and large, aren’t the working poor this credit is supposed to help. They’re middle-class and upper-class suburbanites, and most live in districts with well-funded public schools.

Even if the credit was more generous, it’s unlikely most low-income students would benefit. For a case in point, look no further than Chicago. In 2013, the Board of Education closed 47 elementary schools and steered returning students to higher-performing “welcoming schools.” 39% of students never made it to a welcoming school; parents prioritized proximity and convenience over performance, and many enrolled their children at schools closer to home. Single or working poor parents often had no choice; early-morning commutes or safety concerns ruled out long detours to a faraway school.

Last but not least, even when large numbers of students do take part in voucher programs – which this tax credit is, in all but name – the results aren’t pretty. Louisiana, Ohio, Indiana, and Washington D.C. have all put similar programs in place. In every case, the research shows, participants did worse than their peers who stayed in public schools. In Michigan, a program backed by Betsy DeVos fared so poorly that charter advocates do their best to avoid the subject. There’s no reason to believe the results will be different in Illinois; the Chicago students Governor Rauner wants to steer away from their “failing” public schools are outperforming their peers nationwide.

If this seems like bad policy, that’s because it is. That was never Governor Rauner’s concern. Look at the politics, and this move isn’t hard to understand. The primary beneficiaries of this voucher program – well-off voters outside Chicago – happen to form Rauner’s base of support. After two years of inaction and gridlock in Springfield, Rauner has seized on this lone bill as evidence that he’s not the do-nothing governor our state knows all too well. Never mind that he’s spent two years playing Chicago and the rest of the state against each other; Rauner can show that he extracted a concession from Mike Madigan. This, in turn, sets him up to argue that our state can serve their best interests while ignoring Chicago’s. Rauner is betting that voters downstate, whose schools Rauner just held hostage, will focus on their distaste for Chicago and its politicians instead of focusing on their common interests. It’s risky, but the governor is taking his chances.

There you have it. Politics over policy. Governor Rauner just held a crucial school funding bill hostage to push for an ineffective and costly voucher plan written with reelection, not schools, in mind. This is the same man who spent the last two years blaming ineffective government programs for our state’s budget crisis. Since the legislature finally passed a budget over his veto in July, he seems to have warmed to the idea of spending taxpayer money – as long as it benefits his political supporters. Along the way, Rauner managed to fire much of his staff, oust their newly minted replacements weeks later, and go from trashing Speaker Madigan to singing his praises. It’s an impressively quick about-face; few states are blessed with a governor dynamic enough to change his views, staff, and style in the space of a month.

Most voters would agree this rare talent has earned Governor Rauner a long break from politics. The bad news is that he has other ideas. The good news is that 2018 is just around the corner, and voters will soon have a chance to judge Rauner’s performance. After the governor’s recent antics, I trust teachers, parents, and students have seen enough to give him a well-deserved failing grade. Our job as Democrats is to give voters another option, so they have a Democrat to vote for as well as a governor to vote against. If we can do that – and it won’t be easy – we’ll soon see Rauner gone, replaced by a governor who’ll let public schools do their job and let students learn.

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Reflections: Blue Hilltern in a Red Legislature

Emerging from the intern cubby after six amazing weeks on the Hill, I leave just like I came: wide-eyed, hopeful, and hungry for change. Except, a new feeling of confidence has wiggled its way in.

First arriving in DC, I was honestly quite cautious. The Hill was actually on a hill (who knew altitude was a thing beyond the Florida flatland?), Jimmy Johns didn’t deliver to my apartment, and Mitch McConnell had slithered off to a secret closet in order to ruin health care for poor people. I didn’t even know turtles could read, let alone write legislation!

But… my first week of work rolls around, and I start to find my footing. I make it on the Metro, answer some phone calls, and meet my Congressman, the amazing #baldveganrep himself, Ted Deutch (D-FL22). It was absolutely sensational to see our office run like clockwork and to actually run around the underground tunnels of the House and Senate getting signatures and scheming to find Bernie Sanders.

In all sincerity, my time in Congressman Deutch’s office truly reaffirmed my passion for representation in government. Carrying the cosponsor sheet calling on Iran to release our constituent Bob Levinson, the longest held US hostage in history, I felt the weight of the paper increase as I realized the weight of my actions for the Levinson family back home. Later writing the questions many congressmen asked of Levinson’s son in a MENA Subcommittee hearing, I felt an intense sense of respect for how well our government can really run when led by people with the best intentions in mind.

A similar sense of pride filled my heart at a rally against the abhorrent AHCA outside the Capitol steps. We chanted, we marched, and we actually managed to kill the bill that would have ultimately killed thousands in our country. Something Cory Booker said at that rally really stuck out to me after that gut-wrenching vote: “The power of the people is greater than the people in power.” The constituent calls, emails, visits, and rallies, which I was so privileged to encounter this summer, truly fuel the fire of change! Realizing this, I finally found the confidence in our democratic system I really needed.

Then perhaps the most important thing I learned on the Hill in six short weeks was that I am extremely well-represented by people that I truly trust. The staffers in my district’s office pump out responses to every constituent concern, the congressman responds to community crises, and the chief-of-staff is absolutely full of heart. Their intentions, like those of many other representatives and senators I encountered – including the stellar ladies Lois Frankel, Nancy Pelosi, Susan Collins, and Elizabeth Warren – are truly sincere and have the masses in mind. Accordingly, I believe that John McCain’s game-changing vote was a matter of good intentions and realization that will hopefully extend to his colleagues in the foreseeable future.

For now, though, we must fight to challenge and expose the bad intentions of those in power who pander to the wealthiest one percent for reelection. And from my inspiring time on the Hill, I have no doubt our generation will do just that.

~Charlie Rollason

The Life of the Unpaid Hilltern

“People will tell you your whole life what you can’t do.”

Senator Heidi Heitkamp, Democrat of North Dakota, looked out over the moderately sized crowd of interns in Russell’s Kennedy Caucus Room. Hearings on the sinking of the Titanic had taken place in this room. Crucial parts of the Watergate investigation had taken place in that room. And now, in SR-325, she was closing out the intern lecture series.

From growing up in a town where her family of nine made up a tenth of the population, to her breast cancer diagnosis during an unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign, to her 2012 election to the United States Senate—which, she noted, Nate Silver (A.B. ’00) had given an 8% chance of occurring—the junior senator from the Roughrider State wove an inspiring story that continued to return to two points. First, political service is a worthy goal towards which to strive. Second, anything is possible if you set your mind to it.

***

Since July 10, I have been interning at the Office of U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), 706 Hart Senate Office Building, 120 Constitution Avenue NE, Washington, D.C. (Please send us mail). Hart is full of summer interns—there are nine in our office alone–and there are six other office buildings besides ours that make up the Capitol complex. Russell and Dirksen, the two other buildings on the Senate side through which we pass to reach the Capitol, are equally packed with (mostly unpaid) college students during Washington’s swampy summer months. The House office buildings, Rayburn, Longworth, and Cannon, appear to be, from my infrequent visitations, mad houses. Four hundred and thirty-five offices are crammed into three four-story buildings, while the Senate only has to deal with one hundred.

As I reach the halfway point of my time in the Senate, Senator Heitkamp’s message is reassuring. I often estimate that there are between four thousand and five thousand interns on Capitol Hill, each as involved with politics and policy as I am. Everyone here is striving for something, not the same thing, but something. It can be intimidating.

It is obvious that there are tens of thousands of young people across the U.S. with dreams of having a career in public service or the public sector, and many, many of these people are not lucky enough to find their way to an internship on the Hill. But seeing all these thousands of interns, plenty smarter than I, plenty more ready to ruthlessly climb the ladder of success than I, gave me pause. What chance is there for me? Well, when it all boils down to it, about the same as all the rest of these folks—after all, we’re just college kids on summer break.

***

The work we do is not necessarily glamorous. Today, we listened to our one-thousandth voicemail, a benchmark for calls we passed long ago. The debate on the fate of the Affordable Care Act had caused our office to be inundated with correspondence; I can’t imagine how the poor interns of Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) or John McCain (R-AZ) must have felt. Calls aside, all of us are trained and authorized to give tours of the Capitol to groups of fifteen or fewer constituents, and we are often sent around the Capitol complex to collect signatures and file bills. So far, I have not had to get coffee for anyone, which I count as a win.

Of course, as with any summer internship, getting coffee with people is a common pastime. I’ve sat down with staffers from the House and Senate side, to shoot the breeze and pick their brains, from both Connecticut and from Illinois. So far, three of the five people I have or have scheduled chats with are University of Chicago alumni. Go Maroons.

***

I say Senator Heitkamp’s talk was reassuring, but it was not only the talk that has reassured me in my time here that a career in public service may be an admirable goal.

After the third vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act, the vote on the so-called “skinny repeal” bill, failed, our office received hundreds and hundreds of calls thanking the Senator and his staff. Senator Blumenthal, a member of the unified Democratic caucus, voted against the repeal which failed 51-49 after Republican Senators Collins (ME), Murkowski, and McCain jumped ship.

These calls were unlike the usual ones we had to sift through. Yes, in the days leading up to the vote we had received hundreds of calls begging us to fight the repeal, to delay the vote, to filibuster-by-amendment. Those callers tugged at our heartstrings, relaying stories of sick and ill loved ones and family members, friends and neighbors, men and women suffering from diseases and ailments of so many different sorts.

But these calls after the vote, the caller’s absolute relief, their feelings that prayers vindicated, their voices heard, these were the calls that really made me feel something deeper. A little bit of faith was restored to them. I felt like I was part of something larger than myself in the smallest possible way, a part of something larger than any other collective being of which I had been a part in the past. Corny, I know, but that’s what I thought of during Senator Heitkamp’s speech.

Generally speaking, when I’m asked what I want to do with my life, I say that I want to help people, and I think effective politics and governance is a way to go about doing just that. Whether it is working as a Hill staffer, running for local, state, or federal office, or even simply voting, engagement with government can make our country better. If you want me to talk more about my internship, my coffee chats, my general experience, don’t hesitate to reach out, but the message I want to leave on is another quote borrowed from Senator Heitkamp’s address:

“Where are the opportunities to listen, to bridge the divide, to come together?”

To me? Good government.

~Ridgley Knapp

Is it 2020 Yet?

Life comes at you fast, and I’m pretty sure it moves even faster during the Trump administration. Here’s a walk-through of American news from the last week, in case you missed anything. Questions? Something I missed? Leave them in the comments!

Wednesday, July 26th

Donald Trump surprised his West Wing and Pentagon staff by tweeting that transgender individuals would no longer be allowed to serve in the military in any capacity. (General James Mattis, the Secretary of Defense, was on vacation.) Although Mattis quickly walked back the comments with a statement from the Joint Chiefs of Staff clarifying that “there will be no modifications to the current policy until the president’s direction has been received by the secretary of defense and the secretary has issued implementation guidance,” the tweets sparked a massive backlash from liberals and conservatives alike. President Trump still does not have the power to implement major policies with Twitter alone, and nobody knows how he envisions a transition out of the military for the thousands of active duty transgender soldiers. (The Pentagon does not track numbers of active or past trans soldiers, but almost every estimate numbers them in the thousands. Trans people are statistically more likely to serve in the military than the rest of the population.) An estimate from the RAND Corporation puts the cost of trans-specific healthcare at 0.004-0.017% of the Department of Defense budget. The military currently spends fourteen times more on Viagra than on necessary medical care and transition services for trans service members.

After Tuesday’s motion to proceed on a repeal of Obamacare, GOP senators scrambled to concoct a “skinny repeal” of the ACA with an even skinnier replacement. The bill was kept secret by McConnell, and remained unseen by the majority of senators through Wednesday night.

President Trump continued to excoriate Jeff Sessions in the news media and on Twitter, following an interview he gave to the New York Times on July 19th in which he claimed that he would never have appointed Sessions had he known Sessions would (or would have to) recuse himself from the Department of Justice’s ongoing Russia investigation. On Wednesday, he queried on Twitter why Sessions hadn’t yet fired Andrew McCabe (acting FBI director) on the grounds that McCabe was a Clinton ally. Sessions, unlike most members of Trump’s team, has not revealed any plans to resign.

The Federal Reserve declined to raise interest rates with the goal of monitoring inflation more closely before a new hike.

President Trump compared illegal immigrant gang members to animals, claiming they “take a young, beautiful girl, 16, 15 and others and they slice them and dice them with a knife because they want them to go through excruciating pain before they die.” He may have been alluding to the MO of a particular gang, MS-13, but immigrants arrested under his authority have largely committed no crimes other than unauthorized entrance to the country.

The DOJ filed an amicus brief claiming that Title VII, which currently prevents employment discrimination based on “race, color, religion, sex, and national origin,” does not prevent discrimination based on sexual orientation. The ACLU called the brief a “gratuitous and extraordinary attack on LGBT people’s civil rights.” Current appellate court rulings are split on the issue, with the northern 7th Circuit ruling against this kind of discrimination and the southern 11th Circuit ruling for it.

Thursday, July 27th

Anthony Scaramucci, President Trump’s pick to replace Sean Spicer, threatened a reporter with FBI and DOJ investigations after she published an article on his financial disclosure forms, a matter of public record. In a now-deleted tweet, he implied Reince Priebus, Chief of Staff at the time, was behind what he saw as a “leaking” campaign against him.

Senators voted for the first amendment to the Senate healthcare bill, unleashing the process informally known as ‘vote-a-rama’. The voting process lasted until 2 am Friday morning, when John McCain followed the leads of Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and killed the ‘skinny repeal’ of Obamacare. McCain was widely lauded as the savior of the ACA for his common-sense decision, but Collins and Murkowski had opposed the bill since the beginning, and disabled activists had risked arrest and put their lives on the line for weeks in protest of a bill that would condemn many to bankruptcy or death.

White House staff and GOP leaders announced a united front on tax reform, promising to jettison planned border taxes and complete an overhaul of the tax code by the end of the year.

The House approved a $790 billion spending package, including 1.57 billion to fund a border wall with Mexico. The border wall provision makes the bill almost certain to fail in the Senate, but the bill didn’t have an easy journey through the House, either: a New York Times article revealed that squabbles over including the cost of medical care for transgender soldiers had threatened to derail the package and had perhaps sparked Trump’s public ruminations on the subject.

The New Yorker published a truly incredible interview with Anthony Scaramucci, covering his thoughts on Reince Priebus, leakers, Steve Bannon, and self-fellatio. If you haven’t seen it, no summary can really do it justice. Scaramucci claimed that he thought the interview was off the record, and that his only mistake was trusting a reporter. The reporter clarified that he had explicitly asked Scaramucci if the interview was on record, and Scaramucci had said yes before launching into his tirade.

Friday, July 28th

North Korea tested a ballistic missile that some experts say has the potential to hit California.

Reince Priebus, Trump’s embattled Chief of Staff, handed in his resignation at the request of the President. Trump chose Gen. John Kelly as his replacement, becoming the first President since Nixon to appoint a general as his chief of staff.

Monday, July 31st

Trump fired Anthony Scaramucci at the request of John Kelly, bringing an end to the Mooch’s ten-day tenure. Sean Spicer allegedly had a role in drafting the statement on Scaramucci’s departure, perhaps leaving the door open for a potential return.

 

~Madeleine Johnson

Calling your Congressperson: Why it matters

By Executive Director Ryan Thornton

People almost constantly tell you to call Congress, be it a UC Dems Facebook post, or President Trump telling people to call their representatives. But, the question most people (including myself) ask is why does it matter. But, after half of a summer interning with Senator Tammy Duckworth, I can explain both what happens when you call and why it matters. What happens: When you call a representative’s office, you will pretty much all the time be speaking to an intern. These interns will listen to your opinion, ask for some combination of address, zip code, and name, and then copy down your opinion or mark it down on a tally sheet (or sometimes both). What is important to remember is that they are interns, so they honestly won’t be able to answer any of your very narrow policy questions nor does it matter whether all you say is, “Oppose Trumpcare” versus a ten-minute spiel. The interns will duly take down your opinion (so long as you are a constituent) and add to the tally, so make their lives easier by keeping it short and sweet.

Why it matters: This may seem somewhat pointless; if all I am talking to is an intern where I am just a number on a sheet, why bother. The answer is that with every number, the representative knows that that person isn’t just one constituent, but someone who cares enough about politics to call (and therefore vote) and also someone who takes the time to call so their vote could possibly be won. This is the reason why so many senators have come out against many of the failed Trumpcare plans, and why Senator Duckworth starts out her week by looking at the previous weeks call numbers. So although you may be a tally on a sheet, the effects you have on policy and on representatives votes can be great.