At Oak Park Elementary School District 97’s annual C.L.A.I.M. Your Voice legislative forum, held on Oct. 18 at Percy Julian Middle School, 416 S. Ridgeland Ave., district officials engaged state lawmakers on a range of education-related issues. But the bulk of the forum’s focus was on money and equity.
The forum is hosted each year by D97’s Committee for Legislative Action, Intervention, and Monitoring — a body of volunteers that monitors legislation that could potentially affect students and families in Oak Park.
This year’s forum featured state Reps. La Shawn K. Ford (8th) and Camille Lilly (78th) and state Sens. Don Harmon (38th) and Kimberly Lightford (4th).
During the event’s question-and-answer session, one attendee said she was troubled by the state appropriating more money than it has, a pattern that adds to its growing backlog of unpaid bills.
“What tough vote are you willing to do to increase revenue? Because the bottom line is that state doesn’t have the revenue to [cover expenses],” she said.
“Vote to raise taxes,” said Lilly. “It’s very difficult to vote to raise taxes. Senator Harmon and I did budget revenue rally. We came up with good ideas for revenue. […] All of those ideas will have impact on some entity in our state. So whichever way I vote, someone is not going to like it. However, we’re going to need revenue to [make sure] families and individuals have quality lives.”
Harmon blamed the revenue/appropriations imbalance on Gov. Bruce Rauner, who said he would veto any tax increases unless his Turnaround Agenda passes.
“Everyone knows we need to raise revenue, but we don’t have enough votes to override the veto,” Harmon said. “All of us voted for the temporary income tax [increase], and we will vote again, because we need to do it.”
Lightford agreed, saying that the temporary income tax increase, which expired in 2015, should have been permanent to begin with.
“When it went away, our $5 billion went away,” she said. “We were meeting obligations and then a $5 billion hole fell on top of us. Our debt now is even greater before we took first vote on a [tax increase].”
Ford said that he realized that there was an imbalance, but given the financial damage caused by budget impasse, he felt he didn’t have any other choice, since vital programs needed to be funded.
In addition to tax revenue, the conversation was also dominated by issues of equity, with one parent of two elementary school children asking what the state and D97 could do to hire more African-American teachers.
Lily said that she wants to investigate whether the teacher certification test is an obstacle to increased black hires.
“When you’re dealing with the fact that the demographics of individuals who take the tests to become teachers, when you have majority of African-American [applicants], and actually the majority of Americans, not passing the test, you have a problem,” she said. “A task force needs to be put in place to determine why individuals who are educated in our school system aren’t passing the test.”
Ford and Harmon both noted a general lack of respect among society that teachers suffer, with the former saying that he believes that’s the reason why more black men don’t apply for the jobs. Ford also said that pay could be an additional prohibiting factor.
“If we want to get black men into education, we need to [have them] make more money,” Ford said. “Men say, ‘I can’t teach, because it doesn’t pay me enough.'”
Salome Pintado-Vertner, an eighth-grade student at Julian, asked what the legislators could do to help students become more educated about global and social issues.
Harmon said that internships, with his office and political offices in general, go a long way.
“We’ll take all comers, so come up when you’re ready,” Harmon said.
Lightford noted that events like the C.L.A.I.M. forum was an important way to get students engaged and thinking about important issues.
“Doing what you’re doing tonight is an example of engaging students and families in understanding what we do,” she said.
Michael Romain contributed to this report.