Illinois’ new Governor Bruce Rauner was sworn in to office on January 12th. Over the past two decades, Rauner has been very active in promoting school choice. One of his first significant moves as Governor was appointing Pastor James Meeks to head the Illinois State Board of Education. Will the new partnership of Rauner and Meeks bring positive change to Illinois?
Meeks would replace Gery Chico, who was appointed by Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn in 2011. Pastor Meeks is the lead pastor of Chicago’s Salem Baptist Church. The south side congregation has over 20,000 members. Meeks served as the representative of the 15th district in the Illinois State senate from 2003 to 2013. He has been a longtime advocate for education reform and briefly campaigned for Mayor in 2011.
The Rauner-Meeks partnership is one that reaches across party and ethnic lines. Meeks originally held office as an Independent before running as a Democrat. Governor Rauner is a Republican, but has been very upfront about his bi-partisan goals upon taking office. His campaign ads frequently highlighted Democrats, specifically women and African-Americans vouching their support of Rauner. It was a campaign tactic that clearly resonated well with demographic groups that may have voted Democratic in the past. Now that Rauner has taken office, will his campaign ads ring true? The appointment of Meeks is a big step in that direction.
Like Rauner, Meeks support school choice and backs the increased use of charter schools and vouchers as alternatives to traditional public education and has been critical of the Chicago Teachers Union. Meeks said his top priority is closing the “achievement gap” among Illinois schools. “If vouchers can do it, whatever the board will think will close the education gap,” Meeks said.
The open-minded approach of Rauner and Meeks is an optimistic shift for independent schools like Chicago Hope Academy. Hope receives no government assistance yet offers extensive financial aid and strives to be affordable for families of all economic levels. Vouchers would enable Christian academies like Hope to be affordable for even more deserving students. Christian schools in Chicago can’t help but be hopeful about Rauner and Meeks’ goals on expanding school choice. It will be a political and educational battle worth closely following as Rauner and Meeks look to keep their word.