Pensions

Illinois state school funding fight involves lots of fuzzy math – Greg Hinz

As political dramas go, this one is a beaut.

A Springfield dispute over state aid to grade and high schools threatens to keep classrooms from opening in just a few weeks—or to shut schools down soon after even if they can open for a bit. Gov. Bruce Rauner blames Democrats for holding students “hostage” to “a bailout of Chicago’s broken teacher pension system.” Democrats respond that it’s Rauner who’s pushing crisis and that the Chicago Public Schools system gets way short of what it deserves.

Who’s right?

It’s a staggeringly complex subject—I still can’t figure out where there’s a $100 million-a-year difference in some key figures the two sides are giving me—and no one here gets a pass. But the more I learn, the more I tilt against Rauner. He’s decided to demonize part of his electorate, Chicago, in a way I haven’t seen in this state’s politics for many decades. And he’s cherry-picking numbers even more than the other side.

The core dispute centers not on whether but how to revamp the state’s decades-old school aid formula, which currently parcels out about $11 billion a year, $4 billion of it for pensions.

The Democratic version would ensure that every district gets at least what it does now but shuttle any net new state aid mostly to districts with lots of students living in poverty. It also would begin providing $221 million a year to CPS for the current, or normal, costs of teacher pensions and retiree health insurance—expenses the state now pays for every district in Illinois outside of Chicago via contributions to the Illinois Teachers’ Retirement System.

On balance, CPS would receive an extra almost $300 million in 2018, according to the Democrats. They say that figure still is less than it ought to be, based on student population, and represents only a quarter of next year’s overall statewide increase in spending.

Republicans say the hike for Chicago is more like $400 million. I haven’t been able to get them to explain why. But part of it is the roughly $200 million-a-year block grant CPS gets from an old budget deal, money the Republicans want to phase out in exchange for the pension money.

Now, there’s a lot of tricks being played around these numbers.

Rauner, for instance, while wailing about those fat-cat Chicago teachers and their big pensions, is promoting a website that shows how much other districts would get under his school funding plan. The trouble is in the fine print: The site purports to redistribute money that would come not from pension funding but from phased-out block grants. Apparently taking away money from impoverished kids in Chicago isn’t as popular as whacking teacher pensions. Democrats, in turn, refuse to call for a vote a statewide pension bill Rauner wants. That bill may be unconstitutional, which should render any action moot—but a vote would also irritate the labor unions on which House Speaker Michael Madigan relies.

Related: Editorial: SB1 is flawed but necessary for Illinois schools

In this fray, I find fairly convincing the contention that, even assuming the Democrats get their way, Chicago by their count would receive 16 percent of the money while educating 19 percent of the state’s public school kids. CPS is being shortchanged.

If Republicans have different figures, they’re not disclosing them. Believe me, I’ve asked. Instead, they respond that Chicago wouldn’t need as much if it hadn’t mismanaged and undercontributed to the Chicago Teachers Pension Fund. In other words: Dig yourself out of your own mess.

There’s truth to that. Under Mayor Richard M. Daley, money that should have gone to teacher pensions instead went to classrooms and pay hikes. That’s why the city just raised property taxes to provide $272 million a year for the pensions.

But by the “own mess” standard, the state’s Teachers’ Retirement System, which will get $4.56 billion from taxpayers next year, was even more mismanaged. It has only 39.8 percent of the assets needed to pay expected liabilities compared to the city fund’s 52.4 percent. So why can’t downstate and the suburbs dig themselves out of their hole?

There are other ways to parse this, but you get my drift. Though it might be inconvenient for someone’s re-election race, there ought to be a way to compromise on this without kicking kids into the street.

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