School finance in somebody else’s state seems like the ultimately irrelevant, boring, and “in-the-weeds” kind of topic. Except that what is happening in Illinois ought to interest us all because it is a microcosm of today’s ideologically driven, rancorous and dangerously divisive state politics.
In Illinois, discord between the General Assembly—both houses dominated by Democrats—and the far-right Republican Governor, Bruce Rauner, has left a statewide school funding crisis looming over the beginning of the school year. In July, the legislature overrode Rauner’s veto of the state budget, but then on August 1, Rauner vetoed part of the school funding distribution formula on which the budget was based. Gov. Rauner has the power in Illinois to veto or amend parts of a piece of legislation, and he used his “amendatory veto” on the school funding formula. Rauner also showed his true political priorities right after the Democratic legislature overrode his budget veto when he fired key officials in the Governor’s office and replaced them with a staff from the Illinois Policy Institute, an ALEC-affiliated, far-right think tank.
But there are new developments this week. On Sunday, August 13, the Illinois Senate overrode the Governor’s school funding veto. The outcome in Illinois now depends on the House, which begins a special session today to try to resolve the crisis. It is expected that a veto-override will be harder to arrange in the Illinois House.
Here is some background on the school funding crisis threatening the wellbeing of children in Illinois as the 2017-18 school year begins. Until the first week of July, an ideological impasse between Rauner and the legislature had left the state without a budget since Rauner’s election two and a half years ago. The funding crisis had undermined universities, health care, and social services along with public education. In June, after Rauner vetoed a state budget passed by both houses of the General Assembly, lawmakers finally came together on July 6 to override his veto. But the budget stipulated that school districts would not be able to access their state funds until the Governor approved an “evidence-based” school funding formula, passed by both houses of the legislature, but not yet sent to Rauner for his signature.
Then on August 1, Rauner vetoed that school funding formula. Illinois law permits Rauner to impose what the state of Illinois calls an “amendatory veto”—the right to veto part of a bill—in this case the part of the school funding plan that Governor Rauner called “a bailout” for the Chicago Public Schools. (Here is an explanation of some of the complexities of Illinois law and the current school funding mess.”) After Rauner vetoed parts of the school funding formula, the Chicago Tribune explained: “Rauner’s veto sets the stage for weeks—and potentially months—of uncertainty, kicking the issue back to Democrats who control the General Assembly. The senate now has 15 days to consider the veto, then the House gets another 15 days.”
This past Sunday, August 13, the Illinois Senate voted, 38-19, to override Governor Rauner’s amendatory veto of the school funding plan. Here is Tina Sfondeles for the Chicago Sun-Times: “The Illinois Senate on Sunday moved quickly to override Gov. Bruce Rauner’s amendatory veto of a school funding measure he’s declared a Chicago bailout…. The Illinois House has 15 days to act on an override…. State aid payments to school districts were to be sent out on Aug. 10—but the state needs an ‘evidence-based’ school funding formula approved before it can release those funds, per an agreement Democratic leaders inserted into a budget package. The vote came a day after the Illinois State Board of Education released an analysis of the veto that found Chicago Public Schools would receive $463 million less in funding this next school year under Rauner’s funding plan than the measure approved by the Democrat-controlled Illinois General Assembly.”
The Chicago Sun-Times recently reported that the city of Chicago, whose mayor controls the nation’s third largest public school district, has said it would deliver an additional $269 million to the Chicago Public Schools “from the city of Chicago government to balance its $5.79 billion operating budget for the coming year, school officials announced Friday… The $269 million in local funding would be in addition to state money that school officials are hoping will arrive through school-funding legislation that’s been the subject of yet another ongoing political battle in Springfield.” The Chicago school district has been experiencing a funding crisis for years, closing schools, cutting staff, and borrowing until its bond rating has collapsed. Like other school districts across the state that serve concentrations of very poor children, Chicago has suffered for years from a statewide system that fails to recognize disparities across school districts in local taxing capacity and the enormous needs of school districts in poor areas.
In an interview for Alternet with Jennifer Berkshire, Dusty Rhodes, a reporter for NPR Illinois, explains the history of Illinois’ highly unequal school funding, something legislators tried to address in SB1, the bill that recently suffered Rauner’s amendatory veto: “Really what SB 1 is is a way of quantifying what kind of resources a school needs and coming up with what’s called an adequacy formula for each district. Our current school funding formula just says, ‘here’s how much it costs to educate a kid in Illinois: $6,119.’ Period. The current formula is also heavily dependent on property taxes, which means that areas with malls and fancy homes are able to spend considerably more on education. So we have a district that spends $32,000 a year per child and districts that spend $7,000.”
As if we couldn’t read the signs that the school funding fight in Illinois is part of the state-by-state, far-right assault on public services, last week we learned that Governor Rauner has been working with Cardinal Blasé Cupich, who leads Chicago’s Catholic Archdiocese, to push for the addition of tuition tax credits, a form of private school vouchers into the school funding mix. Rauner is implying perhaps he’ll compromise on the school formula if the Legislature will only insert private school vouchers into the school funding plan. The program Rauner proposes would start relatively small. The state would grant only $100 million in tuition-tax-credit vouchers the first year, but Rauner’s proposal would allow the private school voucher plan to grow rapidly year-by-year. The plan would make children in poor and middle class families eligible—children in families with income up to $113,775. Tuition tax credit vouchers would significantly reduce the state’s general fund, of course—the pot of money from which public schools are funded.
Illinois exemplifies statewide politics as described by economist Gordon Lafer. State governments have become the focus of a fifty-state strategy by the far-right: “For three decades, beginning in the Reagan administration, authority over social and economic policy and programs has steadily moved from the federal to state governments. Unemployment insurance, welfare, food stamps, transportation, education and health care spending…. Fewer than one-quarter of adults are able to name their state senator or representative, and fewer than half even know which party is in the majority… For all practical purposes, these debates take place in a vacuum. Apart from labor unions and a handful of progressive activists, the corporate agenda on such topics encounters little public resistance at the state level because hardly anyone knows about or understands the issues.” (The One Percent Solution, p. 34)
Twenty-six states today are now dominated by far-right ideologues in both houses of the legislature and the governor’s mansion. Others are ideologically fractured. Illinois, with a Democrat-dominated legislature and a far-right Republican governor, is the site of the kind of battle that is lacking in what are now 26 all-Red states, where, too often, taxes have been quietly slashed, school funding reduced, or vouchers, tuition tax credits or Education Savings Accounts passed without a fight. The far-right continues to transform state governments—through massive corporate lobbying and the influence of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and its network of statewide think tanks like the Illinois Policy Institute.
Illinois is the perfect window through which we can watch the implications of this kind of fight.