Education Funding Fight Could Prompt Special Session

Schools are caught in the crossfire between Democrats who control the General Assembly and Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, who issued his latest salvo on Friday from a high school in the central Illinois town of Auburn.

Rauner demanded that legislators release to him by noon Monday a measure they approved in May that he’s promised to immediately use his veto pen on, or he’ll call them back to Springfield to meet in special sessions daily until the education funding issue is resolved.

“Do your jobs. Don’t hide it. Let me fix it,” Rauner said. “We’ve let months and months go by and we’ve got to fix it now. Schools must open on time.”

Illinois Senate President John Cullerton said there is no need for “expensive special sessions” – which can cost the state roughly $50,000 a day – or “conflict-driving vetoes” when the governor could simply call a meeting with legislative leaders to hash out their differences.

Rauner, whose office has said that as governor he’s the only one for whom it’s appropriate to convene high-level meetings, has not met with Cullerton or the other legislative leaders since December. In an unusual break from tradition, the governor was not included in a series of leaders’ meetings held leading up to the budget vote in early July.

“Let’s have a meeting so we can see what the governor’s plan is. It can be as simple as that,” Cullerton said in a statement. “I would encourage the governor to convene a leaders meeting rather than a special session.”

The legislation at issue, often referred to by the label Senate Bill 1, would drastically change how the state distributes money to schools.

Although lawmakers recently put an end to years of stalemate by passing Illinois’ first complete budget in years, a clause in that appropriations plan says the public funding allotted for K-12 education can only be spent if Illinois uses an “evidence-based model.”

Until a law passes that changes the formula used to decide how much of the education pot is doled out to each of the state’s 852 school districts, all state funding for schools is on hold. While wealthier districts will be able to get by, others administrators say they’ll be hard-pressed to open come fall without state support.

Senate Bill 1 is the only bill to have passed the General Assembly that meets that “evidence-based model” definition (it narrowly passed the House in late May on a mostly partisan 60-52 vote and in the Senate with 35-22 split). 

Typically, after passage a bill goes to the governor’s desk for action.

But Democratic Sen. Donne Trotter, D-Chicago, says given Rauner’s veto threat, he used a parliamentary procedure known as a “motion to reconsider” to put a hold on the measure. That prevents the governor from killing it with his veto pen, and from signing it into law. There is no limit on how long the hold can last. 

Rauner’s education secretary in June said that the governor supports “90 percent” of Senate Bill 1, but that he’d reject it because he believes it favors Chicago Public Schools.

More recently, Rauner has said he plans to use his amendatory veto powers to “take out the bad pieces” rather than vetoing it outright.

But the governor has been ambiguous about exactly what those changes would look like: Will his changes be aimed at CPS pensions, or a CPS “block grant”?

On Friday, the governor repeatedly said that he will remove from the bill provisions that send CPS $215 million for teacher pensions.

Chicago is the only district that doesn’t get its staff retirement costs paid for by the state. It’s automatic for all other districts. Illinois will spend $4.6 billion in fiscal year 2018 on their collective pensions.

Rauner said it’s “fundamentally unfair” to “dump” the CPS pension costs on taxpayers.

But at the same event in Auburn, Rauner said he supports the state picking up CPS’s pension tab, as long as it’s part of a broader pension overhaul and is separated from the school funding formula debate.

“We should do pension reform, and we should fix it, and we should treat Chicago pensions just like we treat all pensions,” Rauner said. “They (Democrats) do not want to do that.”

Adding to the confusion is a stance taken by the governor’s office on a website he’s using to sell his plan by showing districts how much additional money they would get if money intended for CPS under Democrats’ version of Senate Bill 1 is instead distributed to them.

According to the website, Rauner’s calculations are based on having the state pay CPS’s pension bill, but eliminating a CPS block grant worth $215 million.

“Find out how much more money your school district will get under the Governor's school funding plan. This is the right plan for the state of Illinois and puts our children and their education first. Districts across the state are struggling and SB 1 as written does not ensure fair funding and outcomes for all our children – it instead sends money to support a CPS bailout. Schools can't afford that,” the website reads.

A footnote explains the difference: “The SB 1 number accounts for CPS’ tier funding and FY18 new pension pick-up, and the Governor's plan number accounts for CPS’ tier funding, FY18 new pension pick-up, and net result of Chicago Block Grant elimination.”

Illinois’ next payments to schools are set to go out Aug.10; districts throughout the state typically begin classes shortly thereafter. 

Rauner set a deadline for getting a new education formula in place by July 31, though he has no way of forcing a Democrat-dominated legislature to do so.

“(Illinois House) Speaker Michael Madigan is clearly hoping that by sitting on the bill until the middle of August or later that the crisis – the pain, the chaos – that he can inflict will cause bad policy,” Rauner said, in one of many rants on Friday centered on his political nemesis. “At some point we’ve got to stop the tyranny.”

But Democrats, and various superintendents throughout the state who have taken to social media as part of a “Fix the Formula” campaign, say Rauner could alleviate the threat looming of a crisis by signing Senate Bill 1 into law.

The governor last called a special session for 10 days leading up to Illinois’ new fiscal year, which began July 1.

That did spur momentum for passage of a budget, though Rauner was not involved in crafting it, and vetoed the one that passed – including money for schools. Ultimately, 11 Republicans broke from the stronghold the governor holds on the GOP and joined Democrats in overriding his vetoes.

Whatever comes of the latest machinations, it appears that Illinois is on track to move away from a school funding model that has long been decried by advocates as woefully inequitable. An over-reliance on local property taxes means that as much as $32,000 is spent on each pupil attending a school in a wealthy area, while spending on a student growing up in an area with low property values can be in the $4,500 range.

An evidence-based model takes local wealth into account, as well as factors like the percentage of students in poverty or who speak English as a second language, to determine what it should cost to adequately fund a child’s learning, and how much state support districts need to reach that target. 

Follow Amanda Vinicky on Twitter: @AmandaVinicky 


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