The genesis for this week's legislative special session on education funding is Rev. Sen. James Meeks' call for a boycott of the Chicago Public School system's first day of fall classes. But a campaign threat is what really seemed to motivate Gov. Rod Blagojevich to take some action.
Meeks' boycott idea was widely dismissed at first as a potentially harmful stunt. Reinforcing the notion among students that their schools are so lousy that attending classes is a waste of time is probably not a great message to send, no matter how bad the schools are.
Even so, Sen. Meeks (D-Chicago) has been able to sign up a growing number of fellow African-American ministers to his boycott idea.
African-American ministers represent one of the last bastions of support for the breathtakingly unpopular Blagojevich. So, if some of them are ready to revolt, he's gotta be ready to listen.
The most interesting part, though, was when Meeks appeared on Fox Chicago Sunday, one of those "newsmaker" interview shows.
Meeks announced that he would run against Blagojevich if the governor ran for reelection in 2010.
"If he runs again, I'll definitely run against him," Meeks told the show's hosts.
Meeks blasted Blagojevich during the program for not keeping his campaign promise to put $2 billion into education funding.
"He has failed in the area of education," Meeks said.
Blagojevich always seems to respond best to threats like this. Meeks' threats to run against Blagojevich in 2006 prompted the governor to pledge that aforementioned $2 billion for schools, which never materialized.
So when Meeks made yet another campaign threat, the governor didn't wait to ask "How high?". He jumped.
Blagojevich quickly called a one-day special session and then said he was considering bringing lawmakers back in September until they came up with a plan to fund education, even if the special sessions lasted until the November elections.
That's pretty extreme, but the governor apparently wanted to head Meeks off at the pass. Right now, Meeks is the only potential black gubernatorial candidate in the 2010 Democratic primary. Keeping Meeks out would give Blagojevich a shot at the African-American vote, which could prove decisive in a multi-candidate race against a bunch of white Democrats.
Whatever happens, the special sessions will certainly provide a more constructive and positive outlet for the growing protest. Meeks and other members of the Black Caucus plan to showcase legislation that would "sunset" (the legislative term for allowing a law to die on its own by a certain date) local property taxes for schools by 2010.
The idea, based on the state of Michigan's experience, is to create a "doomsday" deadline to spur some sort of action. Michigan sunsetted its own property tax several years ago and eventually settled on the sales tax as a replacement.
The obvious question is whether, and for how long, the governor will remain focused on this issue. He's infamous for bouncing around from one bright, shiny ball to another without any serious follow-through. And Meeks is right that school funding reform has never been much of a Blagojevich priority.
Indeed, when the governor was asked last week about Meeks' property tax sunset idea, he said he opposed it. When asked repeatedly by reporters if he had any funding reform ideas of his own, he dodged the questions.
The property tax sunset idea was opposed by just about every school group and union when it was introduced in the House earlier this year. But the Illinois Federation of Teachers is taking a second look at the plan in the wake of the latest developments. That doesn't mean it will actually pass, but the proposal may have a little more life in it than some of us may have initially expected.
And if nothing happens? Well, the governor is off the hook because he called the special sessions. Blagojevich can revert to his favorite game of blaming House Speaker Michael Madigan for all the troubles in the world.
And Meeks will have demonstrated to his allies and the community at large that he has the influence to drive the state's agenda. He might even be able to use this as an eventual springboard to higher office.
In other words, like always, education funding reform could turn out to be a "win-win" for politicians, and a "lose-lose" for students and parents.
Let's hope not.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and thecapitolfaxblog.com