While taxes seem high for many residents, the district’s schools are under-funded at the same time — Carol Larson seeks to turn this trend around by addressing budget shortfalls and directly engaging students who are marginalized by the pressures puts on by standardized testing.
After a successful 2006 campaign where Illinois Green gubernatorial candidate Rich Whitney received 10.4 percent of the total vote, a record for any U.S. Green running for governor, the Illinois Green Party (ILGP) followed up in 2007 with three victories in local races this April. Carol Larson was elected to Oak Lawn-Hometown School board, Robert Braam to the Manhattan Library Board, and Kris Campbell was reelected for another term as a Poplar Grove Village Trustee.
These victories now give the ILGP, six members holding elected office across the state. Along with two more ‘near-wins’ in 2007, this signals an increasing presence for the party in state politics. With Whitney’s 10.4 percent of the popular vote, the ILGP is now the third officially-recognized party in the state giving it equal ballot access for Green candidates through 2010.
In 2007, local Green candidates approached their races with a broad array of grassroots approaches to campaigning and a strong commitment to the party’s Ten Key Values.
A 38-year old University of Illinois doctoral candidate in educational psychology, Larson moved to Oak Lawn in 2000 after years in academia and teaching school in Evanston. In her first run for office, she finished first for one of three seats on the south Chicago suburban Oak Lawn Hometown School Board, deciding to get into the race after hearing former Illinois Governor Jim Edgar state many qualified people are afraid to run for public office because the campaigns have become so costly and nasty.
“This struck me as serious,” said Larson. “If we don’t find people with strong competencies to run for public office, we run the risk of experiencing the negative consequences of poor decision-making.”
Larson began her campaign teaming up with local Greens to collect enough signatures to qualify for the ballot. She then stayed on message throughout the campaign with a platform of “children first, fairness, respect, communication and quality of life.” Cognizant of the burden that property taxes place on families and those on fixed incomes, she also pledged to be fiscally conservative by eliminating waste.
Yet complicating matters is that while taxes seem high for many residents, the district’s schools are under-funded at the same time. According to the Better Funding for Better Schools Coalition, of which the Oak Lawn-Hometown School District is a founding member, “Illinois ranks 48th of the 50 states in education funding, and 49th of the 50 states in providing for equitably funded schools, a gap that goes from less than $4,300 per pupil in the poorest districts to more than $18,000 per pupil in the wealthiest districts in Illinois.”
This inequity plays out locally. Despite a parcel tax increase passed in 2003 to help temporarily balance the budget, the district still ranks in the bottom 6 percent in the state in terms of financial health, is in its third consecutive year on the Illinois State Board of Education’s financial watch list and is facing new budget deficits that will continue to accelerate each year unless major changes are made.
Larson made this part of her campaign and seeks to turn this trend around by addressing budget shortfalls and directly engaging students who are marginalized by the pressures puts on by standardized testing.
Larson highlights a pressure felt by many educators in the state of Illinois by the Bush Administration’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, which threatens to cut funding even further if certain standardized test scores are not met. She said, “NCLB puts pressure on school districts to funnel their resources to particular students for the purpose of increasing test performance. While it is necessary to help students who have fallen behind, it is equally important to make sure the other students have access to resources that promote academic growth.”
“I’ve been in schools in which kids learned science from 10-year-old textbooks. I’ve also been in other schools that provide high-tech science labs stocked with supplies. One does not have to think too hard to figure out who is going to learn more science. If we want Illinois children to flourish and to develop the skills necessary to live in the 21st century, then we must provide each child with a quality education.” Larson said.
Larson, who also teaches online child development courses to undergraduate students through the City Colleges of Chicago, joined the Green Party during fall 2006. “It’s been my experience many people support the same principles as the Green Party ñ social justice, sustainability, increased community involvement and decision-making. As people become more dissatisfied with the status quo i.e., an under-funded school system at the state level, global warming issues, “pay to play” politics, they will be open to listening to third party alternatives.”
“The primary challenge for the Green Party is to communicate its platform to a wider audience. Since it does not accept corporate campaign contributions, it does not generate the millions of dollars the Republicans and Democrats raise for their campaigns. This requires Greens to be smarter about running campaigns.” She said.
Braam was able to win his seat on the Manhattan Library Board (near Peoria) by running a write-in campaign. His victory gained the attention of the local press Harold News, where he was quoted as saying, “My whole motivation in running was to be part of the community … the whole concept of a library is kind of community-based. It’s a storehouse of literature and information the whole community can access. That kind of plays into our principles, my Green Party stance would make me a very strong advocate of the library.”
As an eight-year incumbent in his race for reelection to Poplar Grove Village Board (Poplar Grove is near the Wisconsin border, northeast of Rockford), Campbell did not have to overcome the obstacle of name recognition. “I connected with voters at two public debates, in the course of serving my existing term, and through casual conversation everywhere. As I talked to people, I made sure to ask for their vote, and to recommend me to anyone who asked.” Campbell said.
Campbell was initially attracted to the Greens because his personal values matched up well with those of the party. “My positions were mostly established before I read the Ten Key Values,” said Campbell. “I joined the Green Party because my positions and the values were so well aligned.”
Now that he has been reelected, Campbell hopes to entice high quality commercial and industrial businesses, retain and enhance green space and parks, work for water conservation and watershed protection, adequately fund schools and other services for the increased population, and nurture communication between citizens and government groups.
Jason Wallace, 24, another strong candidate finished fourth in a five-way race for three seats on the Heartland Community College Board. Wallace narrowly lost by only 17 votes after a recount in a race where over 33,000 votes were cast. He served as a student trustee for the board from 2005- 2006 and received the 2006 Gigi Campbell Student Trustee Excellence Award. During this time he chaired the Local Issues Subcommittee of the Illinois Community College Board Student Advisory Committee, and represented Heartland Community College with the Illinois Board of Higher Education Student Advisory Committee, of which he is now Chair.
In true grassroots style, Wallace campaigned without spending any money. By setting up free web sites on Facebook and MySpace and sending out emails, he was able to bring new tools to the way local races are run and bring the ten key values to new voters and experienced campaigners alike. In so doing, Wallace gained the attention of local media and earned several endorsements, including the Bloomington & Normal Trades & Labor Assembly and the Pantagraph, a daily newspaper with more than 107,000 readers in Central Illinois that said Wallace “demonstrates a good understanding of the issues, both financial and academic, and would bring a valuable perspective to the board as a former student.”
With experience serving in the Air National Guard, Wallace is one of at least two potential Ilinois Green candidates in 2008 with military experience, with Iraq War veteran Navy officer David Kalbfleisch ( www.electdave.org ) already having announced a run for Illinois’ 10th congressional seat (in Cook and Lake counties). According to Kalbfleisch, who is 28, “the ILGP looks forward to joining forces with Iraq Veterans Against the War to mount a strong campaign in this district. 2008 should be a key year for turning this blue state green.”