A look at the political gridlock over state school funding
By Sophia Tareen
CHICAGO — Illinois may have ended its historic budget impasse, but the Capitol finds itself stuck in political gridlock again, this time over school funding.
The Democratic-led Legislature and Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner are at odds over a proposal that would alter how Illinois distributes school money.
Legislators approved a required plan that re-writes the funding formula, but Rauner opposes it and says he’ll send it back with changes. Democrats are unsure if they have the votes to override him and are using a procedural hold to keep it off Rauner’s desk, at least until Monday.
In the meantime, Rauner has convened a costly special session, but no one has budged in the first few days. With the bill’s fate undetermined, it’s unclear when, or if, schools will get funding.
Here’s a look at the situation:
The new budget requires the state to replace its long-criticized school funding formula with one that provides more adequate funding to districts based on the needs of their students. The Legislature approved a so-called “evidence-based” plan that’s largely supported by experts.
However, Rauner objects to some money for Chicago Public Schools, including additional pension help. He has repeatedly said he’ll use his amendatory veto powers but has declined to specify what exactly he’ll do. There are legal limitations on what changes he can make.
Democrats say the plan is fair since Chicago is the only Illinois district that pays the employer portion of teacher pension costs. Republicans say the new formula means Chicago will continue to get money that it previously received as a block grant.
The first payment to schools is due Aug. 10, but without a new funding formula, they won’t get anything.
What’s the hold up?
Senate President John Cullerton says he hasn’t sent Rauner the bill because he wants to address concerns in a private meeting. Rauner insists the bill should first be sent to him.
“I again urge the governor to show us any changes he wants and to sit down for rational discussions now,” said Cullerton, who plans to send the bill Monday.
Rauner said he expects lawmakers to hash it out before it gets to him.
“If a reasonable compromise that is in the best interest of our children isn’t reached, I will move forward with my amendatory veto on Monday, as planned,” he said Friday.
There currently is no viable backup or new plan in the works.
What happens once the bill goes to Rauner?
If Rauner issues an amendatory veto, the bill would return to the Senate. To overrule or accept his changes, legislators would need a three-fifths majority vote.
There are enough Democrats in the Senate for that to happen without Republican votes, but not in the House.
House Republican Leader Jim Durkin says his caucus stands firmly behind Rauner, unlike with the budget, when some GOP lawmakers voted with Democrats to override Rauner’s vetoes and end the impasse.
“We are united with the governor,” Durkin said after emerging from a rare closed-door meeting with all Republican lawmakers and Rauner on Thursday.
If there aren’t enough votes to override the governor or accept the changes, the bill would die.
How does the formula work?
Republicans and Democrats agree that way Illinois has distributed school funding for 20 years needs an overhaul, but they disagree about how to change it.
Illinois uses a complex formula that requires districts to rely heavily on local property tax revenues. That leaves a wide per-student spending gap between districts that have low and high property tax wealth.
The new calculation channels money to the neediest districts first after ensuring that no district receives less money than last school year. The plan also includes pension help for Chicago.
What’s the impact on schools?
Even if there’s no new formula in place, public schools across Illinois are largely expected to open on time. But it’s unknown how long they could manage.
Some districts have reserves for a few months. Others, like Chicago Public Schools, have borrowed. A spokeswoman for the nation’s third-largest district said schools will stay open no matter “what it takes.”
In the central Illinois community of Canton, Superintendent Rolf Sivertsen says the 2,600-student district will rely on property tax revenues and be forced to tap into $8 million in reserves, which took years to save. But he says it’ll only go so far toward covering the needed $24 million annual budget. Without a solution, his school district won’t be able to stay open all year.
“There’s a whole range of emotions: anger, frustration, and disappointment,” said Sivertsen.