Lawmakers OK school funding amid budget gridlock

By Kiannah Sepeda-Miller 
Associated Press

SPRINGFIELD — Illinois lawmakers’ approval of an overhauled public school funding formula to replace a decades-old version considered unfair marked a bright spot for advocates in a gridlocked legislative session in which the state failed to agree on a budget for the third year running.

Lawmakers in both chambers propelled the long-debated plan to steer more dollars to the state’s neediest schools in the session’s final hours Wednesday. But the cheers, backslaps and handshakes as it was approved in both the House and Senate were severely muted mid-Thursday by Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner’s promise not to sign it.

The measure would direct new money to districts based on the needs of their student population and their available local resources. No district would receive less than they currently do under the plan. New funds would support schools in implementing practices proven to bolster student success.

Sponsors, along with a wide network of education advocates and school associations, say the proposal would help ensure all students in Illinois receive a quality education regardless of where they live. Illinois is home to the nation’s widest spending gap between low- and high-income school districts because it relies on local taxes to fund more than 60 percent of education costs.

“This is turning a major corner for the first time in 20 years,” said Democratic Sen. Andy Manar of Bunker Hill, whose funding-reform focus began with his 2013 arrival in the Senate. “It will attack poverty at the root of poverty, which is in the public school classroom.”

The plan is based on a framework produced by a bipartisan commission of lawmakers convened by Rauner last year. But Republican support peeled off in recent weeks, with lawmakers and the governor’s office claiming Chicago Public Schools would receive more than its fair share.

Rauner told the Chicago Sun-Times on Thursday that he will not sign the measure in its current form, calling it a “bailout” for the financially distressed district.

Republicans in both chambers echoed the “bailout” cry Wednesday, contending the plan would divert dollars toward Chicago that could otherwise be spread across the state.

“CPS wins the lottery and the downstate districts have to foot the bill,” said Republican Sen. Sue Rezin of Morris.

Democrats countered that the plan would ensure CPS is treated like every other district. The legislation guarantees that every district receives at least as much money as it did this year, and not less. But Republicans object to the way grant funds CPS currently receives would be handled in that guarantee.

The GOP also takes issue with a provision requiring the state to pick up some of CPS’ teacher pension costs. Illinois pays those expenses for all other districts.

“Stop focusing on somebody else and worry about yourself and your own districts,” Democratic Rep. Will Davis of Homewood, the House sponsor, told Republicans. “If we help the largest school district that educates the most number of kids, some of the poorest kids in the state, then so be it.”

Manar also noted that 268 districts would still receive a larger per-pupil funding increase than CPS under the plan.

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