THE BLOG
02/04/2013 05:08 pm ET Updated Apr 06, 2013

In Illinois, 'Squeezing' Retirees Is Also Shortchanging Its Youth

A solution for Illinois' worst-in-the-nation pension crisis is stalled, with Illinois' lame duck legislature making headlines for its failure to make good on promises of reform earlier this month. But as my home state's pension liability sits at $96 billion and grows by $17 million for each day of inaction in Springfield, the grip of "Squeezy" -- a cartoon "pension python" created to communicate the severity of Illinois' fiscal woes -- grows tighter around one of our most important assets: our children.

Our underfunded pension liabilities hold hostage other important state funding priorities, education chief among them. The irony of the situation should not be taken lightly: Illinois' fiscal responsibilities to its oldest citizens -- its retirees -- are snuffing out those to its youngest. In both cases, a yawning gap exists between the state's moral, economic and social imperatives and what is fiscally feasible, resulting in hard -- if not impossible -- choices that our elected officials are loath to make.

My appointment as chair of Illinois' Education Funding Advisory Board (EFAB) gives me a unique perspective on Illinois' mounting education funding crisis, similar in severity and scope to its pension funding woes. EFAB exists to make recommendations around per-pupil funding levels as well as a supplemental allocation for low-income students. Given our state's overreliance on property tax revenues to fund education, EFAB's mission is to ensure that every Illinois student, despite ZIP code, enjoys an equal baseline of educational investment.

EFAB's recommendation for Fiscal Year 2014 is an $8,672 per-pupil investment, one that would require $9 billion in state education funding. The recommendation is a pipe dream: Illinois is struggling to make good on its current $4.4 billion education allocation, let alone double it. In fact, our state hasn't been able to afford EFAB's recommendation since 2003, instead mandating a lower statutory level -- currently $6,119 -- and, in the wake of the downward spiral sparked by the Great Recession, prorating what it mandates at an abysmal 89 percent.

The complexity of the numbers tends to mask the alarm: While students in school property-tax rich districts are slightly more shielded from the state's education funding woes, schools in low-income communities -- those responsible for the education of our most vulnerable students, Latinos and African Americans disproportionately represented among them -- are most shortchanged by funding shortfalls and proration practices.

With half of Illinois students now classified as low-income, the situation is nothing short of endemic. And as $17 million gets added to our pension tab for each day of inaction in Springfield, education funding equity gaps -- tied inextricably to academic achievement gaps -- widen for a growing number of Illinois students.

A solution to this mess will not be found in the proverbial robbing of Peter to pay Paul: Reneging on pension promises made to our civil servants -- retired teachers among their ranks -- is not an acceptable or sustainable way to fulfill our educational funding imperatives.

However, inaction is no more acceptable than it is sustainable. Until we can agree to a sustainable solution for our $96 billion funding challenge, we won't be able to get to work on our $8,672 one. Springfield is full of leaders we've elected to work through the hard choices before us. It's time they stop kicking the can down the road. We can't let our future be held captive by our past mistakes.