Why We Should All Care About the Illinois School Funding Mess—No Matter Where We Live

I confess to breathing a sigh of relief when some other state has a school funding crisis. At least it’s not Ohio (my state) this time!  I have to force myself to remember that political trends at the state level matter. Really, if you think about it, it isn’t important that Betsy DeVos is unlikely to get a federal voucher or tax credit program this year. After all, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has members in every state legislature ready to introduce any of a number of ALEC model bills for vouchers or tuition tax credits or education savings accounts.

And then there is something even more basic: school funding. Most of school funding, about 45 percent on average, comes from state budgets, with another 45 percent coming from the taxes raised by local school districts. The federal government invests primarily in Title I to assist school districts serving children in concentrated poverty and programs under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act—about 10 percent of all K-12 school funding.  In many states whose governors are Republican and whose legislatures are dominated by conservative Republican majorities—Kansas, Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona, Oklahoma, North Carolina  and Florida, for example, public school funding has been jeopardized by widespread tax cutting and austerity budgeting.  In these states, state spending on public schools has remained lower than what the state was investing in 2007, before the Great Recession.

Illinois isn’t at the bottom in overall spending, but it is one of the states with the most inequitable school funding formulas in the nation.  It is a divided state whose legislature remains dominated by Democrats but whose current governor, Bruce Rauner adheres to far-right ideology including austerity budgeting.

Until the first week of July, due to an ideological impasse, the state had lacked a budget since Rauner’s election two and a half years ago, and the funding crisis had undermined universities, health care, and social services along with public education. After Rauner vetoed the state budget passed by both houses of the General Assembly, lawmakers finally came together 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.

Earlier this week, Rauner vetoed that school funding formula. Rauner has what the state of Illinois calls an “amendatory veto” power—the right to veto part of a bill—in this case the part of the school funding plan that Governor Rauner has 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.”)

What will happen now? The Chicago Tribune explains: “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. If lawmakers don’t agree with the changes or overturn them, the legislation dies and the comptroller’s office will be unable to send schools their state aid payments until a compromise is reached. The first checks are scheduled to be sent (to school districts for the 2017-18 school year) by Aug. 10. If that deadline is missed, it’s unlikely many schools would be unable to open. However, some districts may have to cut back on programs, borrow or tap into reserves.”

Rauner’s amendatory veto is complicated, but here is the Chicago Tribune explaining what it means: “The Republican governor, long a critic of CPS’ leadership and the Chicago Teachers Union, rewrote the measure to strip out more than $200 million in grant money, penalize the district for declining enrollment, and make it appear wealthier in a complex new formula that determines how state school aid is distributed. And while Rauner left in $221 million in CPS pension help, he  did so with a big string attached. In unveiling his amendatory veto, Rauner tapped into a regional divide that has long seen Chicago pitted against the suburbs and Downstate.”

Politifact Illinois refutes Rauner’s analysis and emphasizes the urgent need for a new school funding formula—including money for Chicago Public Schools. Chicago has the largest number and greatest concentration of students in poverty of any school district in Illinois, and the state has not, historically, prioritized equity: “Believe it or not, there is one thing on which Illinois politicians of all stripes have agreed for years: The state’s system for funding public schools largely through local property taxes is woefully unfair.  While low-income districts scramble to provide classroom basics, more affluent districts can afford to create some of the finest educational facilities and programs in the nation… To address this inequity, Rauner last year formed the bipartisan Illinois School Funding Reform Commission. In February, it issued a report recommending an ‘evidence-based’ formula in which financial and academic need would become the main determinant of how state education dollars are distributed. The formula should be applied so that no school district loses funding… a goal only met with an increase in overall state school spending.”

Politifact Illinois concludes: “Rauner’s own Illinois Education Funding Reform Commission…. called for an ‘evidence-based’ school funding formula but also recommended a ‘hold harmless’ provision that would ensure no district received less this year than last. By that dictate alone, CPS should not be in line this year for a cut in the size of its block grant… The bill’s Chicago pension component can’t be called a ‘bailout’ or even a perk because it only gives CPS what every other school district already has… Numbers are sure to fly fast and furious as Rauner and lawmakers duke this out in Springfield in the days ahead, but we find Rauner’s generalization that SB 1 is a ‘bailout’ for Chicago schools to be FALSE.”

Illinois and the Chicago Public Schools illustrate today’s rancorous and divisive state-level politics around education.

  • In Chicago, school privatization through rapid expansion of charter schools has undermined enrollment in the public school district, and the Governor believes state aid should drop accordingly, even though research demonstrates that school districts cannot recapture stranded costs.
  • Chicago’s pension crisis dates back to the mid-1990s, when the legislature itself restructured the Chicago Public School District. Fighting over the teacher pensions is part of an acrimonious conflict between the Chicago Teachers Union and Rauner.
  • In Illinois and across the nation, there is little honest political conversation about the desperate challenges posed by concentrated student poverty for underfunded public schools.

Finally Bruce Rauner’s political philosophy is extremist. In early July, after members of the legislature overrode Governor Rauner’s veto of the state budget, Rauner fired many of his key staffers and hired what Natasha Korecki at POLITICO describes as “several members of the Illinois Policy Institute, a lightning-rod conservative think tank, in their place….”  The Illinois Policy Institute is so far to the right that it is a member of the State Policy Network, a group of libertarian “think-tanks” at the state level that work with the American Legislative Exchange Council to develop and promote right-to-work and school privatization legislation.

Rauner, like Sam Brownback in Kansas, has promoted government austerity. He is not constructively examining the best strategies by which the state of Illinois could invest in the poorest children and their public schools in Chicago or East St. Louis. I cannot think of one governor in any state who has deeply explored how state government might best be supportive of city school districts where thousands of children live in neighborhoods where poverty is highly concentrated.  Our society’s widening divide by economics overlaid on our divide by race has been examined by academic sociologists but not by politicians.

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