Senate Democrats ram through dangerous school funding bill

Democrat Senators took advantage of confusion and misinformation to narrowly pass a bill they touted as the answer to the state’s broken school funding formula. But according to data released by the Illinois State Board of Education, the proposal would represent a windfall of approximately $750 million for Chicago Public Schools (CPS), while shuffling around the limited remaining dollars between the majority of the state’s school districts.

The legislation’s primary sponsor, State Sen. Andy Manar (D-Bunker Hill), had proclaimed that it was “one formula for the entire state” with “no special deals” for any one district and that it would finally end the Chicago Block Grant. In reality, the bill keeps the majority of the Chicago Block Grant intact, which gives Chicago a larger share of several state grants than if they were treated the same as all other school districts. Combined, those grants would total $368 million in special deals for CPS.

In addition, the legislation alters the school funding formula to benefit Chicago, worth $175 million, and would give the financially strapped district a pension bailout costing $205 million. In total, CPS would receive $750 million in special deals at the expense of the rest of the state.

Sen. Manar touted a “hold harmless” provision that would keep all schools at their Fiscal Year 2015 funding level, but for just one year. Then the provision would taper off by 25% per year, leaving schools to face the full brunt of the cuts in just four years.

Unfortunately that provision, and another that would provide adequacy grants to help schools, would only be possible with an extra $442 million. With the state’s budget deficit at several billion dollars, it seems very unlikely that the sponsor can find another half-a-billion dollars to pay for it, which leaves schools facing the full brunt of the cuts immediately.

Manar’s school funding bill is now in the House, where it is not expected to see any action any time soon. In fact, just a couple hours before it passed the Senate, many downstate Democrat lawmakers held a press conference pushing the idea of fully funding the existing school funding formula for the first time in seven years. Senate Republicans and the Govenor have been advocating for that approach, saying it helps all schools right now, while giving lawmakers time to craft a real solution to the future of school funding.

A House committee is also currently exploring the school funding issue. During the week, they heard from members of the education community, including the Vision 20/20 organization, a coalition of educators, administrators and other stakeholders. The Vision 20/20 group is backing a different type of funding reform, one that would base the entire system on evidence rather than politics. They have already filed legislation in the Senate, sponsored by State Sen. Jason Barickman (R-Bloomington), but so far Democrat leaders have blocked that bill from even being heard in committee.

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