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IL-GOV Tue Jan 19 2010
An exclusive interview with a reform Republican candidate for governor
I heard an all too familiar sound Monday morning as I rode the bus to Dan Proft's downtown office. On February 7th, the robotic PA announced, the CTA will begin service cuts to cope with a $100 million budget shortfall.
"Here we are again," I thought.
An hour later, Proft and I watched as a group of protestors carrying a banner reading "No cuts! No layoffs!" marched past his office as we discussed his plan to reform Illinois's public school system.
"There you go," he said. "Teachers' unions."
In reality, teachers' unions were marching with other government employee groups to protest a wide range of policies, including CTA service cuts, health care, and education. They want to increase government spending and prevent government employee downsizing during a recession and an ever-deepening hole in the state's budget.
Dan Proft is not amused.
"We've increased state spending on education by 32 percent over the last 20 years, and seen test scores stagnate and graduation rates decline," he lamented. "The reason your property taxes continue to go up even when property values go down is not because you're funding children's education. You're funding teachers' pensions."
Candidate Proft has founded his campaign for governor on "policy revolution." He wants to "turn Springfield upside-down" with policies designed to bring major changes to institutions and groups that have held power for decades.
Public education is one of those institutions.
His plan for K-12 education involves launching a statewide scholarship program for which anyone receiving free or reduced school lunches would qualify. This would permit children and parents to choose the school that would be best for their needs, whether charter, religious, private, or another traditional public school.
Instead of "tinkering around the edges," Proft says his plan is a complete approach to education reform that is urgently needed and completely possible despite the firm opposition of many groups in the political establishment, including teachers' unions.
"Children are 11, 12, and 13 years old once. We don't get to come back to them 20 years from now and say, 'We've got it all figured out. We'll teach you how to do long division now.'"
I asked him why teachers' unions are wrong on education.
"Teachers' unions are defending a system that's inherently discriminatory and morally wrong," he said. "Unions are in charge of systems they don't want to defend, but they don't want to change them either. Chicago Teachers Union president Marilyn Stewart doesn't say, 'The Chicago Public School system--now that's a system that's educating kids!'"
School choice has given Proft common cause with the Rev. Senator James Meeks--a south Chicago-area Democrat--who recently filed broad school choice legislation focused on Chicago. Proft sees an opportunity to create a coalition with Meeks and other African-American Democrats for school choice.
"Senator Meeks originally fell into the conventional wisdom that the problem was just about money. But to his credit, he started to go where the evidence led, and then it became increasingly difficult for him to think the teachers' unions have it right. He came to a point where he recognized teachers' unions are the impediment for students' progress."
The way Proft sees it, people have antiquated views on teacher pay, which not only provides unions with leverage to pursue their political goals, but also has placed a huge burden on the average Illinoisan without producing an increase in school quality.
"Teachers were barely making a livable wage 40 years ago, but the average salary in CPS today is $80,000. When you include the guaranteed pension, it's $125,000. Remember, the median household income in Illinois is $48,000. So you have people making $48,000 financing guaranteed benefit levels of $125,000. Not only is that not sustainable, it's not right."
Despite the tough talk, Proft makes it clear he's not against teachers.
"This isn't an attack on teachers. I've known too many teachers in CPS who are angrier than I am about the status quo because they live it every day. They didn't get into teaching to be babysitters, but to impart a love of learning into young people. But it is most certainly an attack on union leadership who control the way money is spent."
Proft approaches education reform not only from the angle of public policy, but also from the perspective of social justice, his conception of which has been informed by his Catholic faith.
"School choice comes from a basis in social justice because it's essentially an issue of equal opportunity. What social justice means to me is the idea that 'I am my brother's keeper.' The idea is you feed the hungry, you clothe the naked, and you give drink to the thirsty. But we currently run education systems that discriminate against children based on household income and their address. It's disproportionally against minorities, but it's really based on income. Why should we tolerate a system that allows the more affluent or the politically connected to have opportunities that low- to moderate-income families just don't have?"
This may sound like a liberal position from a man who is running for the Republican nomination. Indeed, Dan Proft calls himself a classical liberal.
He'll admit it's a term often misunderstood.
"In the political parlance you use the word 'conservative' because it's been imbued with meaning and people know what it means. 'Classical liberal' is kind of a head-scratcher for some people because they haven't read Friedman, Bastiat, Hayek and all the other classical liberals who are promoting free minds, free markets, and a free society and the policies that flow from those principles."
Proft's goal is not only to create an educational system that fosters free, educated minds, but also to improve the state's economy through a free market approach that will cut individual and corporate state income tax rates by 50 percent each, and would prevent government spending from displacing private sector spending that creates jobs.
This means cutting government spending, but not in the usual, piecemeal way advocated by many other Republicans. Proft insists one-time spending cuts will not solve the state's structural problems, including its $12.6 billion deficit. He says spending cuts will only work if Illinois makes meaningful structural changes to improve the state's economic outlook.
One of those structural changes is a statutory spending cap that would index increases in the state budget to a rate of inflation plus population growth. That way, he says, the state can maintain current services and expand them to fulfill demand when people and businesses begin moving back into Illinois.
"You have to send the signal to the business world that we're gonna get our act together, lower your cost of doing business, and reward work and investment because we'd like to see more of it."
But aren't tax cuts and spending caps a tall order in a state where the legislature is controlled by a party seeking to raise tax rates across the board?
"If you make the issue about policy choices--not political affiliation or personalities--you can build coalitions. Reformers don't know what we can do because the Republican Party in this state hasn't made an effort in a decade. If you don't have a vision and take the fight you have no idea what's possible because you've been too busy selling your soul for 40 pieces of silver."
Provocative comments like that aren't rare coming from Proft. Speaking after rival candidates explained their humble backgrounds in a recent debate, he quoted a line from the Steve Martin film The Jerk: "I, too, was born a poor, black child."
"We got a great response from that. Even if people didn't understand the cultural reference, they got what I was saying, which was, 'These guys are all full of bulljive.' First of all, it's not true that they beat the odds in some kind of Horatio Alger way--moving from rags to riches. Second, who cares? Why is that relevant to people's lives? What are you going to do to in terms of the public policies that affect the quality of life in this state?"
"People instinctively understand this because they've been worn down by the naval-gazing rhetoric of politicians who are so infatuated by themselves and their grand stories. They find it refreshing that somebody is calling B.S. on all of this because it happens so rarely."
Proft's Republican primary opponents are an eclectic group. They include a couple of state senators, a former state GOP chairman, the chairman of a large suburban county, and a former state attorney general.
This makes Proft one of two candidates in the Republican race who have never before held public office. The other is a businessman-turned-activist from Hinsdale named Adam Andrzejewski. Campaigning on a platform of government transparency, Andrzejewski has made his plan to conduct a forensic audit of state spending the centerpiece of his campaign.
Proft has an opinion about that, too.
"We don't need Ernst & Young as governor. If you need an audit to figure out where we should reform systems and where most of our tax dollars are spent, you shouldn't be running for governor."
"If you're not talking about completely rethinking the incentives presented and the obligations imposed by Medicaid, by K-12, how we invest in transportation infrastructure, our five state pension systems, and the tax and spending policy that undergird it all, then you're not doing anything but managing the decline of this state."
Once a beacon of economic growth, Illinois now ranks 44th in economic outlook according to the ALEC-Laffer State Competitiveness Index, which evaluates government debt burdens, personal income growth, and employment growth of the 50 states. Unemployment hovers above 10 percent, and The St. Louis Business Journal recently reported more people left Illinois last year than any other state but Michigan.
"But it doesn't have to be that way," Proft says. "You have to be willing to pull back the curtain and take on the defenders of the status quo. There are many, and both parties are involved. And that's the approach that's required to usher in true change."