Gov. Bruce Rauner is calling lawmakers back from their summer vacation to deal with a new school funding plan in special session starting Wednesday. The issue has turned into a showdown between the Republican governor and the Democrat-controlled legislature, with the fate of k-12 school children in the balance.
In May, the General Assembly approved Senate Bill 1 (aka SB1), a measure that would replace Illinois’ decades-old school funding formula, which has become notorious for its entrenched inequity. Schools currently rely heavily on property taxes, so that districts with low property values squeak by on operating budgets as low as $7,000 per student per year, while those with high property values lavish their children with resources more than quadruple that amount.
All sides — Democrats, Republicans, and Rauner himself — agree the current formula is fundamentally unfair. Furthermore, all sides have endorsed the same plan to replace it: an “evidence-based model” developed by the Illinois School Management Alliance and first proposed by State Sen. Jason Barickman (R-Bloomington).
What this showdown revolves around is the amount of state funds that would go to Chicago Public Schools.
Rauner has not shared details of how he would mark-up SB1, but he has repeatedly said that he wants to remove sections that would help CPS pay teacher pensions. CPS is the only district that pays its own teacher pensions. The state picks up that cost everywhere else. Both the Chicago Teachers Pension Fund and the state-supported Teacher Retirement System have massive unfunded liability. Chicago lawmakers have frequently argued that their constituents help pay for TRS pensions, while no other Illinoisians are helping pay CPS pensions.
At Rauner’s press conference today, Crain’s Chicago Business columnist Greg Hinz tried to get in a question about the two pension funds just as Rauner was set to exit.
“They’re taking it away from the classroom to fund a pension,” Rauner said. “I will never ever allow that to happen because that is treating our children as political pawns and we will not allow that to happen. Thanks very much everybody, appreciate it.”
The pension issue was also broached in a Jan. 17 meeting of Rauner’s School Funding Reform Commission, a bipartisan, bicameral group of lawmakers that met for almost 100 hours over the course of six months. State Sen. Daniel Biss (D-Evanston) said it made no sense to tackle inequity in general state aid for schools without addressing the equally-inequitable pension problem, but Rauner’s education czar, Beth Purvis, said that discussion would derail any agreement of school funding. The commission ultimately concluded its work by issuing a report, stopping short of crafting legislation, despite prodding from State Sen. Andy Manar (D-Bunker Hill). Manar went on to sponsor SB1, his 4th education funding proposal in the past few years.
The pension piece is the part Rauner prefers to focus on, but his own website states that he would also eliminate some portion of a $250 million block grant CPS has received since 1995. The block grant was meant to streamline reimbursement for seven “categorical” payment streams such as transportation, special education personnel, and bilingual education. But as CPS enrollment has decreased over the years, the block grant has turned into a bonus.
CPS has lobbied hard to try to get all the state aid it can, because despite the block grant bonus, its schools cannot compete with suburban counterparts. More than 80 percent of CPS students are low-income; more than 90 percent are minorities.
Democrats argue that CPS should get to keep that bonus because otherwise, it would be the only district in the state to lose money via this new plan, despite general consensus in the legislature that any reform must hold all schools “harmless.” Purvis (who was present at today’s press conference, but did not speak) has stated that the CPS bonus block grant has been audited and are not being misspent. Nevertheless, Republicans are determined to take at least $200 million of it away to redistribute to downstate schools.
The proposed redistribution of that block grant is part of the reason Rauner’s online spreadsheet appears so generous to downstate schools.
When asked about it at today’s press conference, he reframed this CPS cut:
“See, this is the misperception,” he said. “This is the spin coming from the other side. Money is not being taken away from Chicago. Money, under the current SB1, diverts money from the rest of the state and the suburbs to Chicago. We wanna stop that.”
In fact, he said that SB1, as approved by the legislature, would rob poor children, to benefit CPS.
“They don’t want this to be out in public, because the truth is so bad for their position,” Rauner said. “They want to take money away from our low-income kids all around the state, and divert it to a pension payment. That is just fundamentally wrong for our children.”
Another topic Rauner sidestepped today was whether the Illinois State Board of Education had run the numbers on his plan. State Sen. Bill Brady (R-Bloomington) stepped to the microphone to state that ISBE analyzes only legislation, not proposals. Via email, ISBE spokesperson Jackie Mathews later offered this explanation for the confusion: “ISBE will produce an analysis for legislation before it is filed but will make the analysis public only at the request of the bill sponsor. An analysis is considered draft until the bill is filed.”
Democrats passed SB1 without a veto-proof margin, and have used parliamentary procedure to keep it off Rauner’s desk. Senate President John Cullerton has repeatedly asked Rauner to negotiate, but Rauner has declined.
If lawmakers and the governor can’t agree on a school funding package, money for schools in the new budget would be tied up.