School funding passes on 2nd attempt
By Sara Burnett
SPRINGFIELD — The Illinois House approved an education funding plan Monday that will increase state money for all districts, reduce disparities between rich and poor schools and provide $75 million in tax credits for people who donated to private school scholarships.
Lawmakers voted 73-34 to send the legislation to the Senate, where a vote is expected Tuesday. Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, who walked the floor of the House after the vote to thank lawmakers, said he will sign it.
The evening vote came after the same measure was defeated earlier Monday largely because of objections to the tax credits raised by teacher unions. It also occurred minutes after lawmakers failed to override Rauner’s changes to a separate plan preferred by the unions, leaving lawmakers with no other alternatives to quickly get money to more than 800 districts starting a new school year.
Supporters said the measure they ultimately approved is imperfect, but that it will begin to fix a state funding system that is widely considered the most inequitable in the country.
“Everybody wins in this conversation,” said Democratic Rep. Will Davis, the bill’s sponsor.
It was a significant moment of compromise in a state where the Republican governor and Democratic-controlled Legislature have repeatedly clashed, leading to the nation’s longest state budget impasse and putting money for schools at risk.
Legislators from both parties have said for years that the way Illinois distributes education money is unfair, but they’ve been unable to agree on how change it. The state budget lawmakers approved last month, ending a more than 2-year impasse, required for the first time that the formula be changed.
Without a plan in place, districts haven’t received state aid. While school officials have said they will be able to open classrooms for the new school year, many districts have worried worry they would run out of money if the impasse wasn’t resolved soon.
The plan approved Monday was negotiated by legislative leaders in closed-door meetings over recent days. It provides money to help Chicago Public Schools pay its pension costs, as the state does for other districts, and allows Chicago to raise property taxes by $120 million to help reduce its massive unfunded pension liabilities.
Illinois’ largest teacher unions called on lawmakers to oppose the plan because of the tax credits, which are part of a five-year pilot program. They accused Rauner, who’s seeking a second term in 2018, of using students “as leverage for private school tax credits” when he used his veto powers on an earlier school funding bill.
“It’s clearer than ever that this Governor does not prioritize public schools, and we must fight for one who does in 2018,” Illinois Federation of Teachers President Dan Montgomery said after the measure passed.
The new tax credit would be worth 75 percent of a taxpayer’s annual contributions to a scholarship fund, with a maximum credit of $1 million annually. The money may be donated to a specific school or “subset” of schools, but not to a specific student. The credit is a five-year pilot program.
Students receiving the scholarships must have a total household income of less than 300 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $73,000 annually for a family of four. Religious leaders, including Cardinal Blase Cupich of the Archdiocese of Chicago, have lobbied for the credit.
Earlier this year, Democrats approved separate legislation that overhauled Illinois’ school funding system. But Rauner used his veto authority to make changes to the legislation, saying it provided too much money to financially struggling Chicago Public Schools.
The Illinois Senate voted to override Rauner’s changes, with one Republican joining majority Democrats. After putting off a vote because of leaders’ negotiations on a fresh deal, the House tried unsuccessfully late Monday to follow suit. The override required a three-fifths majority, or 71 yes votes. It received 63 yes votes.
Lawmakers then voted a second time on the newest funding plan, with several lawmakers who a short time earlier had voted “no” changing to “yes” votes.