The tete-a-tete between Bruce Rauner and Chancellor Bennett, aka Chance the Rapper, continued today when the latter gave a brief press conference at Westcott Elementary, a couple blocks from where he grew up in West Chatham. And his presence in the political debate is in his blood—his father is Ken Bennett, a longtime Chicago politico who’s been an aide to both Harold Washington and Rahm Emanuel.
His meeting with Rauner and weekend phone calls, Bennett said, ended about where talks with the state legislature did: “vague answers,” and “no commitments without caveats or ultimatums.” And Bennett didn’t fold any more than anyone else has; anyone hoping for a counterproposal on policy from the Grammy-winner (e.g., me) was disappointed.
Instead, Bennett announced that he’d coordinated a $1 million donation to the Chicago Public Schools Foundation with LiveNation, AEG, Ticketmaster, and independent promoters from ticket sales for his forthcoming tour. He pushed other celebrities and companies to do the same through SocialWorks, the non-profit he co-founded, which is matching every $100,000 with an additional $10,000. So the donation is actually $1,100,000.
The goal is $215 million, the same amount of money that CPS would have received from a bill that passed the state legislature last year in order to cover this year’s pension payments—until Rauner vetoed it after what Bennett called, in a little dig, “an admitted emotional reaction.” But the funds are intended for afterschool and arts-enrichment programs. (Bennett has credited Chicago Public Libraries’ YOUmedia for his early success, telling Complex’s David Drake that he “met damn near all the producers for #10Day through this library.")
But Bennett said that it “it’s not my job” to subsidize CPS, and it would be a big job to do so. CPS’s total budget for 2017 is $5.4 billion; the $215 million blue-sky goal is enough for just a couple weeks of operations. Bennett also said that it wasn’t his job to get behind policies, and maybe there’s something to that as well. When Mark Zuckerberg gave 100 times what Bennett has promised to the much smaller Newark public schools district, it turned into a political mess because of all the strings attached.
In terms of policy, Bennett seems to have moved the needle just slightly. The Sun-Times’s Tina Sfondeles obtained a memo from the governor’s policy chief, which suggested Chicago sweep its tax-increment financing funds for the $215 million, which would still put the city on the hook for its own pension bill, but in a way that lines up with local progressive critics; in fact, it’s a similar amount to what the Chicago Teachers Union has called for. The city’s done it before—in 2015 it declared a $113 million “surplus,” which returned over $50 million to CPS—but prior TIF surpluses have returned money to other taxing bodies that TIF districts divert money from, whereas this would send all of it to CPS. It would redraw the lines of the debate slightly, but the use of TIF funds not just to the mayor but to aldermen would mean a whole new set of political barriers.
So Bennett is running on separate tracks with his initiative, which even if successful couldn’t come close to fixing the district’s general operations budget. But he’s pushing anyway. “If I texted you and you ain’t got me back,” Bennett said, “I need your help.”