THE BLOG
07/21/2010 05:04 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

For Teachers Unions, Focus Should Be Brady

When it comes to education, Illinois voters have a stark choice this November: a Democrat who would fund the schools versus a Republican who would gut them. But despite this enormous gulf, only one of the state's teachers unions has so far stepped up to the plate.

Teachers unions are upset with Governor Pat Quinn for backing drastic reforms to pensions for new employees. The reforms raise the retirement age to 67 and cap benefits at $106,800, but also preserve a strong defined-benefit pension and spare the future earnings of workers who have already been hired. It's debatable whether this package -- as opposed to, say, joining Social Security and moving toward less generous defined-benefit packages -- is the right solution.

But is Quinn's backing the pension reforms reason enough to sit out the race? I don't think so, particularly in light of his broader record on education -- and the record of his opponent.

Consider that Quinn's signature issue since taking office has been increasing the income tax in order to close the state's budget deficit without cutting education. In his first budget, Quinn proposed raising taxes from 3 to 4.5 percent; while he cut or froze spending virtually across the board, he carved out space for a modest increase in education funding.

This year, Quinn has called for hiking taxes to 4 percent, which he has said would allow him to stave off $1.4 billion in cuts to education that would devastate schools and cause widespread teacher layoffs. Even after the legislature again refused to raise taxes, Quinn limited the cuts to school transportation and after school grants, accepting that his decision to not slash education spending will add to the state's growing mountain of unpaid bills.

Compare that to the Republican nominee, State Senator Bill Brady of Bloomington, whose insistence on no tax increases in the face of a $13 billion budget necessarily means that he would impose Draconian cuts on education and other state services. No less an authority than former Republican Governor Jim Edgar has said that that Brady's plans for spending cuts are "naive" because there is simply no responsible way to close the current deficit without additional revenue.

Even worse is what Edgar has said about Brady himself: "I do think he really believes it as opposed to just thinking he has to say that to get elected." While genuineness is usually a virtue, in this case it's a sign of delusion.

Quinn and Brady each has $2.3 million in the bank right now, and the two are dead even in the polls. Faced with the prospect of such a wingnut, it's no surprise that the Illinois Education Association is backing Quinn to the hilt. But a strong, off-the-books assist by the Republican Governors Association means that keeping up with Brady is going to be a challenge.

More than anything, this means that the Illinois Federation of Teachers, which includes the Chicago Teachers Union, needs to join the IEA in backing Quinn. On the union's priorities, the gap between Quinn and Brady is far, far larger than the gap between Quinn and Comptroller Dan Hynes, who both unions backed in the primary.

And anyone who doubts the unions' ability to deliver muscle ought to take a look at the campaign finance forms filed Tuesday night with the state board of elections. The disclosures, which cover the hard-fought primary for governor, reveal that Hynes received a whopping $355,000* from the teachers unions in his bid to unseat Quinn. To put that in perspective, Hynes raised just under $1.3 million during the same period, meaning the teachers unions alone accounted for more than 25 percent of his fundraising.

Donations in the realm of $355,000 -- or hopefully larger, given the stakes -- could go a long way toward preventing a Brady governorship. Because as even a cursory review of Brady's record reveals, what's truly important is that the governorship remains in Democratic hands.

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* According to Hynes' disclosure forms, the Illinois Education Association kicked in $230,000, the Illinois Federation of Teachers donated $100,000, and the Chicago Teachers Union, which is part of the IFT, added a separate contribution of $25,000.