Illinois Senate Passes Education Funding Reform Deal

The Illinois Senate passed an "historic" school funding reform deal Tuesday, just one day after lawmakers in the House passed the agreement in a dramatic redo of a failed initial vote. 

Senators voted 38-13 in favor of House Amendment 5 to Senate Bill 1947, the deal that was hammered out through a series of closed-door meetings of the four top legislative leaders.

"This is what compromise looks like. This is it. A bill that none of us like at 100 percent," Sen. Kimberly Lightford, a Democrat from Westchester, said during debate.

"Our battle to get to this point is worth it," added Sen. Sue Rezin, a Republican from Peru. "Don't let perfect get in the way of possible."

Governor Bruce Rauner has already vowed to sign the bill, which will move Illinois to an "evidence-based model" of education funding, taking into account each district’s individual needs, as well as its local revenue sources, when appropriating state aid – prioritizing districts that are furthest from being fully-funded.

Without an evidence-based model in place, no state funding can be disbursed to K-12 schools across Illinois at all, due to a provision in the budget passed in July that makes aid contingent on an overhaul of the funding formula.

As a result, the state missed its deadline to make general state aid payments to schools for the first time in history earlier this month, according to Illinois State Comptroller Susana Mendoza, leaving many districts facing uncertainty amid preparations for the beginning of the school year.

"Educators and most importantly parents and children everywhere in Illinois can finally exhale and have confidence that their schools will open and stay open," Mendoza said in a statement following the Senate vote. "I have prepared my Office to release an estimated $540 million in General State Aid owed to schools for the month of August as soon as the Governor signs the bill and after the State Board of Education transmits these vouchers to my Office. It is anticipated these payments will be issued within the next few days."

The deal, first announced Thursday, initially failed in the House Monday after hourslong caucus meetings and criticism from several stakeholders, including representatives on both sides of the aisle. One of the more controversial components of the bill is a proposal to provide state aid to students who attend private schools through a tuition tax credit program. 

Cardinal Blase Cupich has long advocated for the proposal, a five-year trial program beginning with the 2018 school year, but the Chicago Teachers Union called it a "voucher scheme to help the wealthy."

The CTU has been a major critic of the plan that will earmark up to $75 million for scholarship tax credits. Lawmakers said those credits will go to low- and middle-income parents, impacting roughly 6,000 private school students whose families make less than $73,000 per year. 

Some progressive Democrats, as well as several other unions like the Illinois Education Association, positioned themselves against the bill, denouncing it as an effort to create a statewide voucher program. 

State Sen. Daniel Biss, a Democrat from Evanston seeking his party's nomination to take on Rauner in 2018, was among those voting no, saying he made his decision not because he doesn't understand compromise, but because "public dollars to private schools" crossed a "red line" for him and sets a "dangerous precedent."

Chicago Democrats in the House stayed an extra hour after a three-hour caucus meeting Monday to discuss that very issue privately with House Speaker Mike Madigan, emerging divided in their opinions on the bill as a whole. 

"Today we saw compromise," Madigan said in a statement after the final House vote. "Instead of pitting children and communities against each other, Democrats and Republicans came to an agreement on much of what’s in this bill. And even where we don’t fully agree, we’re willing to work together in good faith and meet each other half way."

"Through compromise, we’ve included some provisions that many members would not have supported on their own," his statement continued. "But a package that permanently provides more money for Illinois schools and puts us closer than ever to fixing Illinois’ broken school funding system is too important to let partisan differences get in the way."

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel applauded the agreement as well, having said previously that the bill would give cash-strapped Chicago Public Schools what they wanted and more.

"For far too long, Illinois has ranked dead last in the country for funding its highest poverty school districts. Now we are poised to reform that inequitable and insufficient funding formula," he said in a statement Tuesday, after thanking lawmakers the day before for their efforts to "put politics aside to address decades of inequity."

CPS said the bill will provide the district with roughly $450 million more, with $76 million more in state aid under the new funding formula, $18.5 million for early childhood education and $13 million for bilingual education, minus a $4 million loss from various shifts in the state budget. 

The measure will allow Chicago to raise its property taxes by roughly five percent overall, resulting in an average 2.5 percent increase per homeowner expected to generate an additional $125 million. 

Finally, the deal will shift normal pension costs for CPS - the only district for which Illinois does not make employer contributions - to the state, allocating an additional $221 million to the beleagured district. 

In total, that financial package has led more conservative critics to call the original Senate Bill 1 a "Chicago bailout" throughout the monthslong negotiations.

Among the Republican no votes Tuesday was Springfield state Sen. Sam McCann, who used that rhetoric in his criticism but also said he opposed the tax credit program - and is still considering challenging Rauner in the GOP primary.

McCann, who has had the support of labor unions in the past, also voted to override the governor's veto of the budget in July. He said Tuesday that while he realizes that if he chooses to run, Rauner would have the ability to outspend him, money will not be the sole factor as he makes his decision - which he expects to come to within the next month.

Rauner himself has also been critical of the deal, telling business leaders in southern Illinois Friday that lawmakers were "on the verge of what is largely good education funding reform," but again blamed Madigan for inserting "a bunch of bad things in it," like funding for CPS that the governor said "shouldn't go to Chicago."

"It’s not fair but it’s going to end up being a compromise," Rauner said. "It’s not where we’d like it to be and what I’ll try to do is fix the problems with it in subsequent legislation."

While Rauner did not specify what those future changes might be, he issued a statement  following the bill's passage in the Senate on Tuesday that struck a different tone.

"For far too long, too many low-income students in our state have been trapped in underfunded, failing schools. The system needed to change. We have changed it," he said, thanking the leaders for their work. "We have put aside our differences and put our kids first. It's a historic day for Illinois."

The governor vowed Monday after the final House vote to sign the bill quickly "in order to ensure that our schools – many of which have already opened for the 2017-2018 school year – receive their much-needed resources."

Rauner, who made rare appearances on the floor of both chambers to thank lawmakers after their respective votes, will likely sign the bill in a ceremony Thursday. Sources said he has invited the four legislative leaders, Emanuel, and Cupich to attend the signing in Chicago. 

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