A+ Illinois winding down

Print More

At a pivotal moment in the state’s political and financial history, one of the most visible advocacy groups for school funding reform has all but closed shop.

Staffing has wound down in recent weeks at A+ Illinois—a coalition of advocacy groups set up in 2004 to press for education spending increases and a fix to the underlying tax structure that produces gross inequities in school funding. Executive Director Mary Ellen Guest’s last day on the job was Feb. 6. Unclear is whether or not the coalition will retain a single legislative liaison to help slog through the state’s looming budget battles.

At a pivotal moment in the state’s political and financial history, one of the most visible advocacy groups for school funding reform has all but closed shop.

Staffing has wound down in recent weeks at A+ Illinois—a coalition of advocacy groups set up in 2004 to press for education spending increases and a fix to the underlying tax structure that produces gross inequities in school funding. Executive Director Mary Ellen Guest’s last day on the job was Feb. 6. Unclear is whether or not the coalition will retain a single legislative liaison to help slog through the state’s looming budget battles.

Ironically, as the sun sets on A+ Illinois, the environment may be ripe for school funding reform. The state faces a gargantuan and unprecedented budget shortfall of nearly $9 billion; a tough environment, to be sure, to find any extra cash for education. But income tax hikes or other new revenue streams—the lack of which have long been a stumbling block to school funding reform—may be unavoidable in the face of such a staggering deficit.

A number of factors complicate the picture, however. The U.S. Congress has reportedly come to terms on a federal stimulus package that includes money for education and school renovation. But many questions remain about what impact it may have on state-level education spending decisions. Adding silt to the already murky waters are the many changes in key legislative posts across Illinois, including the impeachment of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

A+ Illinois was built for victory in 2007. Armed with $600,000 and six statewide organizers, the coalition had hoped to mount a successful legislative campaign at the close of the 2006 election cycle. But like Network 21 and a long list of other predecessor groups, the A+ Illinois campaign ground to a halt.

Most reform advocates point their fingers at Blagojevich, who pledged to toe the line on income taxes and instead pushed for expanding gambling and the politically-unpopular and ill-fated gross receipts tax to help fund schools and other infrastructure projects.

Financial support for A+ Illinois has dwindled since the defeat. Staffing dropped from 10 people to six the following year.

“They ran out of money,” says Ralph Martire, a coalition member and executive director of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability.

“[A+ Illinois] was an incredibly effective organization at getting different people in different parts of the state to understand the depth and breadth of this issue,” says Martire. “They did what they could in an impossible environment.”