Designing sound public policies to address fundamental societal needs has always been, at best, difficult.
Much of this difficulty traditionally stems from three causes. First, there’s the inherent challenge of allocating scarce public resources across competing essential services such as education, health care, job training and housing. Overcoming this challenge is further complicated by one, integral fiscal truism: where needs are greatest, resources are least. This truism ultimately requires decision makers to raise resources from one segment of society and reallocate those resources to other segments — which is always politically contentious.
Second, development of major policy structures over time is organic rather than strategic, leading to a legislative hodgepodge that’s difficult to navigate and frequently creates undesirable outcomes. Third, the overtly partisan nature of public policy creation frequently results in worthy initiatives falling by the wayside, as political advantage and expediency get prioritized over problem solving.
Meanwhile, as political discourse continues to become more divisive — and occasionally violent — a new impediment to dealing with societal problems has entered the fray: alternative facts. And by alternative facts, I mean out-and-out lies that are so outrageous they make traditional political spin look like sworn testimony under oath. These latter two factors — hyperpartisan politics supported by a willingness to completely disregard reality — have created an environment where party loyalty “trumps” everything else (pun intended).
Sure, attaining partisan goals has always been and will always be part of our political system. But doing so should never come at the expense of serving the common good. Which is a point explicitly recognized by former President John F. Kennedy, who cautioned that a Democrat’s duty was “not merely the preservation of political power,” nor “to our party alone, but to the nation, and indeed, to all of mankind.” And lest you think only Democrats view bipartisan cooperation as desirable, former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel from Nebraska once cautioned that “If America is to succeed in responding to 21st Century challenges, our political system cannot continue to bog down in the mire of partisan gamesmanship.”
The reality is, it’d be in everyone’s interest if bipartisanship did not become a quaint vestige of America’s political past, but rather a rational way to resolve complex, societal problems. For proof, look no further than the great state of Illinois, and its relatively new school funding formula — the “Evidence Based Formula for Student Success” or “EBF.” As its name suggests, the EBF ties education funding to covering what the evidence shows works to enhance student achievement.
Prior to passing the EBF, Illinois was notorious for having one of the least equitable — and most inadequate — education funding formulas in America. Things were so bad that well over 60 percent of the state’s school districts were deficit spending, and poor urban communities with significant minority populations, as well as poor rural communities with hardly any minority kids at all, were both woefully underfunded.
Then a funny thing happened. A conservative Republican representative named Bob Pritchard teamed up with progressive Democrats like Sen. Kim Lightford and Rep. Will Davis to work across party lines to pass the EBF. And while the state’s then anti-spending Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner initially vetoed the legislation, strong bipartisan support for the bill ultimately pressured him into signing it.
Since passing, the EBF has worked remarkably well to counter the inequities created under prior law. For instance, of the $1.6 billion in new K-12 funding that has been distributed under the EBF, $1.1 billion — or 71 percent — has gone to schools educating student populations that’re over 50 percent low-income, while 87 percent — or $1.3 billion — has gone to schools educating 87 percent of the Black and 77 percent of the Latinx students in Illinois. In short, bipartisanship on the front-end resulted in legislation that benefited the entire state on the back-end.
Illinois, and the nation, could use more of the same.
Ralph Martire is executive director of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, a bipartisan fiscal policy think tank, and the Arthur Rubloff Professor of Public Policy at Roosevelt University.
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December 11, 2022 at 07:52AM