SB1 not a bailout for CPS

I hope Governor Bruce Rauner’s veto of Senate Bill 1 (SB1) doesn’t blow up our best chance in generations to fix the state’s system of financing public education. Without SB1, we will continue providing the least equitable and the least adequate funding for public schools of any state in the nation.

The governor called the bill a “bailout for Chicago.” Not true. In fact, on a per pupil basis, more than a quarter of the state’s schools do better under SB1 than does Chicago. Politifact underscored this point when they rated the governor’s “bailout” claim as false. The new formula does take into account costs, like the cost of teacher pensions, incurred by the Chicago public schools but by no other district in the state. The governor’s veto removes this small stab at equity, even though, under SB1, real parity between Chicago and every other school district won’t be reached until all districts are funded adequately.

In his enthusiasm to sock it to Chicago, the governor managed to create big problems for lots of other school districts. Many cities, including Chicago, use tax increment financing (TIF) as an economic development tool. During the life of the TIF, new revenues are generally unavailable to schools, parks and other units of local government. The governor’s veto pretends that those dollars are in fact available to pay for public schools. Schools in the 319 municipalities that have established TIFs , including Bellwood, Marion and Rockford, will be surprised and not a little upset to discover that state aid payments will be reduced because of local revenues that in fact are not available. And does the Governor really want to pit local economic development goals against schoolchildren?

Similarly, the governor treats all property value within a school district as value the district can use, even when tax caps are in place and the district can only tax a portion of the value. There are some 70 school districts, including Chicago, that will lose money under this provision. Between TIFs and tax caps, the governor’s changes hurt school districts that can’t take advantage of increased property values. If the governor doesn’t like the way TIFs operate, a better approach would be to offer improvements. And if he doesn’t like property tax caps, perhaps he should propose abolishing them. It’s certainly unfair to assume school districts have revenues available that they in fact cannot access. This is the governor who says he wants to freeze property taxes. Why then punish school districts with property tax limitations?

SB1 establishes a state minimum funding level for public education. It can’t and doesn’t guarantee that the level will be reached in each and every budget year. Rather, the minimum funding level sets our sights on adequate funding as an important goal. It also acts as the mechanism to make sure that, however much is appropriated, the districts with the greatest need will be first in line for whatever new funding is available. Without the minimum funding level, dollars will continue to go to affluent areas at the expense of all the others. I think that removing the minimum funding level has to raise questions about the depth of the governor’s commitment to school funding reform.

In SB 1, lawmakers included mechanisms to make sure that changes in the real costs of educating our children would continue to be part of the equation. The governor’s decision to veto this language means we’ll be left without knowing whether our funding level is keeping up with increases in costs. With a static measure, we will look, over time, much closer to adequate funding than we really are. This is one of the major problems with our current system, where the dollar amount to reach full funding is so low that the concept is meaningless.

The governor made other changes that will hurt the least advantaged schools. It’s no wonder that his veto doesn’t have a single organizational proponent among the members of the education community—those groups continue to support SB1 as it went to his desk. And the governor managed, along the way, to blow a $221 million hole in the budget for the coming year.

That we can fix. But we can’t fix the funding system if we permit the Governor’s veto to blow up our best chance in generations to reform school funding in Illinois.

-State Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie (D-25)