Lawmakers head to Springfield in school funding fight

By Sophia Tareen 
Associated Press

SPRINGFIELD — Illinois lawmakers head to the state Capitol Wednesday for a special session aimed at resolving a funding fight that’ll determine whether schools get state funding before the start of the academic year.

Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner summoned the Democrat-majority Legislature to Springfield after they failed to meet his deadline to send him a plan that rewrites how Illinois doles out school funds. Rauner has threatened to veto and rewrite the plan over objections to additional money for Chicago Public Schools. Both houses of the Legislature approved the plan but the Senate has not yet sent it to Rauner for his consideration.

The overhaul is required because the budget lawmakers approved this month after a two-year stalemate says schools must get funding through an “evidence-based model.” Both parties agree Illinois’ decades-old school funding calculation is unfair, but they’ve clashed for years over how to change it.

It’s unclear what will unfold when lawmakers convene and it will depend if the bill is sent to Rauner. To override Rauner’s changes, they’ll need a three-fifths majority, including Republican votes. Lawmakers could also craft a new plan.

The back-and-forth is the latest clash between Democrats and the first-term governor. Illinois’ unprecedented budget stalemate — which began when Rauner took office in 2015 — ended this month during a separate special session called by Rauner. He vetoed a spending plan lawmakers sent him that included an income tax increase, but lawmakers overruled him, including Republicans.

In the school fight, both sides accused the other of playing politics.

“The Democrats in the majority are playing political games with our children’s education,” Rauner told reporters this week. “They seem to be intent on holding up school funding until August when schools need to open.”

Democratic leaders say the issue should be addressed by legislative leaders meeting the governor and two House lawmakers vowed to boycott Wednesday’s gathering to hold a service day for students. House Speaker Michael Madigan accused Rauner of “political theater,” and blasted him for refusing to detail his proposed changes.

“By calling a special session while he refuses to negotiate and even says ‘there’s nothing to discuss,’ the governor is continuing to create a crisis that pits one child against another,” Madigan said in a Tuesday statement.

The first state payment to schools is due Aug. 10. While most school districts say they have reserves to open on time, questions remain about how long they can operate without state funds.

The proposal in question funnels money to the neediest school districts first after ensuring no district receives less money than last school year. That includes additional pension help for Chicago, the only Illinois district that picks up the employer’s portion of teacher pension costs.

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