By CARL GREEN
Springfield, IL – Illinois has finally approved a much-needed and overdue revamping of its school funding formula, which has long been considered unfair and inadequate.
Governor Bruce Rauner signed compromise legislation Aug. 31 ending concerns that schools would have to close for lack of state funding.
But the compromise came at a high price. Lacking enough votes to override an amendatory veto of the school funding plan, Democratic leaders in the House and Senate agreed to a $75 million plan to give tax credits to donors for scholarships to private schools.
This measure was opposed by the state’s teachers’ unions, leading some legislators who had supported the funding formula to vote against it earlier in the week. But it brought aboard enough Republican support to pass the bill and push Rauner into signing it.
The chief architect and sponsor of the new funding formula, Senator Andy Manar (D-Bunker Hill), said the overall bill will strongly benefit public schools throughout the state.
“Students, parents, teachers and taxpayers deserve better than what Illinois has been offering,” he said. “Finally, we have a plan that lays the groundwork for local schools to be fairly funded by the state.”
The formula is called an “evidence-based model” that will use 27 factors to prioritize funding for schools that need the most help, Manar said. No schools will lose money, and the current system, with its winners and losers among school districts, will be eliminated. Districts preparing budgets will have greater certainty about what they will receive from the state each year, he said.
Manar said he regretted the inclusion of the tax credit, which is a 75 percent credit of up to $1 million for contributions to scholarship funding for private and parochial school students. The total of credits is limited to $75 million a year, and the plan is set up as a five-year pilot program.
“Personally, I oppose this type of tax credit program for private schools. But it’s the price the governor and Republicans demanded for their votes so that we could finally enact a fair public-school funding system,” he said. “At the end of the day, this a substantial improvement for the schools in this area, and that’s why I supported it.”
The new formula was first introduced in Senate Bill 1, which both the House and Senate passed during the legislative session. Rauner, however, used his amendatory veto power to revise it into a Republican-style attack on public funding of schools.
The Senate promptly voted to overturn the veto, but on Aug. 28, the House’s vote to override fell short. That led legislative leaders to quickly pull together the compromise, Senate Bill 1947, which was approved by large majorities in both the House and Senate and sent to Rauner, who agreed to sign it.
Leaders of both the Illinois Education Association (IEA) and the Illinois Federation of Teachers (IFT) opposed the compromise bill because of the tax credit plan and additional measures to relieve local districts’ costs for physical education and driver education.
“Tonight, state legislators moved Illinois closer to doing what we have needed to do for decades – treat our poorest students and communities fairly,” said IFT President Dan Montgomery.
“Unfortunately, it came at a very disappointing cost. Governor Rauner capitalized on the crisis he created when he vetoed the original bill and used it as leverage for private school tax credits that benefit the wealthy while working families continue to struggle.”
The bill allows districts to reduce P.E. classes from five days a week to three and to let students in grades 7-12 opt out of P.E. if they participate in sports. It lets districts hire outside companies to teach driver’s education classes without getting a waiver from the State Board of Education.
The P.E. measure was strongly opposed by members of both unions.
“For some kids, P.E. class is the only physical activity they participate in each week,” the IEA said in a statement. “After school, the lure of TV and video games is strong, and many kids may not get the recommended amount of daily exercise if they’re not in physical education classes.
“While parents and guardians would do well to ensure that kids are active outside of school, cutting P.E. classes in school will only worsen the problem.”
Rauner had battled against the original bill, calling it a “Chicago bailout” because it would have shifted costs for Chicago teacher pensions from the city to the state, which is how it works for all other districts.
The pension shift remained in the final bill that he signed, making retirement more secure for thousands of retirees, but this time Rauner didn’t call it a bailout – even though the bill gives even more money to Chicago than Manar’s original bill.
“This shows what we can do to come together to take on our most significant challenges,” Rauner said at the signing ceremony. “Today, we are putting our students and our teachers first.”