Lieutenant governor candidates find consensus on higher education

Civic entrepreneur Ra Joy, running mate of Chris Kennedy, said Illlinois’ current local-property-tax system robs students of desperately needed resources. 

By Eric Bradach

Greater resources allocated to public universities, funding safeguards for Monetary Award Program grants and more pathways toward educational success with new revenue sources were all shared goals of candidates attending a gubernatorial higher education forum at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Organized by Young Invincibles and several university groups, the Feb. 12 forum hosted three Democratic candidates for lieutenant governor: state Rep. Juliana Stratton, J.B. Pritzker’s running mate; state Rep. Litesa Wallace, Daniel Biss’ running mate; and civic entrepreneur Ra Joy, Chris Kennedy’s running mate; and one for governor, Robert Marshall, a physician from Burr Ridge.

The candidates spoke to students, faculty and local guests about their plans to address the rising cost of higher education for Illinoisans, and how they would prevent young people from leaving the state.

Governor candidate Tio Hardiman and lieutenant governor candidate Jonathan Todd, Bob Daiber’s running mate, were scheduled but unable to attend the forum.

All the candidates promoted the concept of a progressive income tax to achieve expanded student financial assistance programs.

“Because our state stubbornly clings to a broken local-property-tax system,” Joy said, “we’re robbing our students of the resources they so desperately need.”

A different state revenue system could make college debt free for Illinois students, Joy said, adding that he and Kennedy plan to make community college free for all state residents. Joy also said he plans to make Illinois the most highly educated state because education is the “great equalizer” that stimulates upward mobility.

Wallace advocated for free public education beyond K–12, which is a core tenet of the Biss/Wallace platform, she said. Along with a progressive income tax, Illinois should also legalize and tax recreational marijuana to increase higher education funding, she added.

Marshall said casino gambling in Chicago can generate billions of dollars in revenue from not just locals but tourists as well.

As the director of the Center for Public Safety and Justice, Stratton said a lack of financial avenues to higher education not only threatens students but also university faculty and staff. Those burdens disproportionately affect minority and low-income students, she added. 

Stratton said more resources are needed to provide greater access to college opportunities for these groups.

“We have to make sure communities that have suffered from decades of disinvestment have appropriate kinds of investments overall so that students are better prepared,” Stratton said. “We have to make sure we fully fund our educational systems starting with early childhood education.”

The candidates were also asked about student loan protections and the soundness of a law that causes individuals who default to lose their professional licenses.

All candidates said they are in favor of eliminating the law. Joy said the state should also go after “bad actors” at for-profit colleges that engage in predatory tactics because, despite accounting for only 9 percent of institutions, for-profit colleges account for 35 percent of Illinois’ student loan default rate.

Several students also expressed uneasiness about the uncertainty for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. All candidates said they would support protections for its recipients and expand state-funded tuition assistance programs to undocumented students.

“We also need to make sure we have a campus climate that accepts [undocumented immigrants as well as] supports and fosters their success,” Wallace said. “I see head nods here because I know that it is difficult being a student of color in a predominately white campus and not always having the supports necessary.”

Every Kennedy has been at the forefront of immigration reform, Joy said, and Chris Kennedy would continue that tradition.

“If my running mate were here, [he] would say America is a nation of immigrants, and it should not become a nation of orphans,” Joy said. “There are 42,000 Dreamers in Illinois, and for every policy consideration, we need to ask the question, ‘Are we humanizing people or dehumanizing people?’”

While many students in attendance said they appreciated the candidates’ advocacy for access to higher education, a few suggested the consensus makes it challenging to differentiate who would make for a better leader of the state. 

One said that students’ homework does not end with their classes.

“You have a right to vote, but you need to exercise it with respect [and] inform yourself about the candidates,” said Allyson Nolde, 29, a public administration and policy graduate student at UIC. “It’s all well and good to show up to these forums and listen to what other people are saying, but at the end of the day, legislative voting history does not lie. You need to do your homework, read up on the candidates [because] actions speak louder than words.”

The candidates also promoted expanding work study programs. Stratton said those programs are threatened by President Donald Trump and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, so Illinois needs a governor who will fight the White House administration on those policies, which Rauner has failed to do.

“These issues that we have discussed today about higher education are so critical and vital, not just for students, but for everyone around this state,” Stratton said in her closing statement. “This election is about which candidates have a proven record of getting things done so we can reverse the devastation of [Rauner’s failed leadership].”

Joy finished by saying this election is about creating a new state Democratic Party and encouraged the audience to make their voices heard in the March 20 primary. 

Wallace echoed Joy’s comments and said the Illinois governorship should be determined by an election, not an auction, alluding to the more than $100 million that has already been raised in the election.

“None of us will get the respect we deserve unless we absolutely demand it,” Wallace said. “This election is a crossroads for all of us. We are at a point where we are going to ask ourselves, ‘Do we want to continue down a path where higher education is flatly funded?’ or, ‘Do we want to make a fundamentally different choice?’”