Schools are scheduled to receive their first payment from the state for the coming school year in just three days, but that can’t happen until the Illinois legislature approves a new evidence-based funding model.
Lawmakers have several choices:
- First there’s Senate Bill 1, crafted by Democrats and approved by both legislative chambers.
- Then there’s Senate Bill 1 as re-envisioned by Gov. Bruce Rauner, who last week used his veto pen to carve out big chunks of the Democrats’ plan and add some novel flourishes of his own.
Before either of these can happen, lawmakers will wait for spreadsheets to be produced showing exactly how much money school districts supposedly will receive under each plan. That could happen as soon as today. But spreadsheets are the school-funding equivalent of Cliff Notes, a shortcut that skips nuances that might show up on the test. That’s especially true with this new funding model. It has built-in recalibration mechanisms to annually rebalance what each district needs to achieve adequacy against its capacity to bear that cost.
Take, for example, student enrollment: “Under SB1, if you lose student population, you’ll get less money from the new state distribution," said Ralph Martire, director of the bipartisan Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, "because your adequacy target will be reduced. It’s not as if the formula ignores it.”
Martire has been working on this school funding model since 2010.
“But, if you’re below adequacy, you still get more money than you got the prior year, so you can move towards adequacy," he added. "That’s the beauty of how SB1 works. The math actually accommodates all situations -- student population growth or loss.”
This particular feature got the axe under Rauner’s veto. He would cut dollars for schools with declining enrollments, even if they’re already underfunded. The prime example of such a district is Chicago Public Schools.
CPS appears to have inspired several of the governor’s changes, like the one involving special development programs called tax increment financing, or TIFs. Cities and counties create TIF districts to encourage development by suspending tax rates for a set period of time.
State Sen. Jason Barickman, R-Bloomington, who was assigned by the governor to work on a compromise, offered his view of whether TIFs were on the table.
“In our negotiations, the discussion about TIFs, specifically, have centered around whether we could make prospective TIF districts," he said. "In other words, TIF districts that don’t exist today, but are set up in the future.”
But Rauner’s veto leapfrogs his own negotiating team and recalculates how much property tax each school district can raise by simply pretending they can access full property values, like TIF restrictions don’t exist.
At the moment he issued his amendatory veto, the governor didn't know how many votes he would need to enact his changes, how those changes would impact dollars going to each school, or how long it would take the State Board of Education to do all that complicated math. Rauner had not shared his plan with his own party's longtime point-person on school funding. Barickman, who has filed multiple school funding plans, says he didn’t see the governor’s veto until it was made public. “Well, you know, I can’t speak for my colleagues. I was not given a chance to see the amendatory veto before it was issued ," he said. "We all have different roles in this. I’m a Republican legislator. I’m certainly not the governor.” Rauner also had established a bipartisan commission that met for six months to come up with a more equitable school funding plan, but his veto includes measures never discussed by the group.
In an email exchange about the governor's changes regarding TIF and another common property tax cap called PTELL, Rauner spokesperson Laurel Patrick said districts use those to "hide their wealth."
“One easy example is Chicago,” she wrote, “which is riddled with TIF districts in wealthy areas that allows CPS to hide its true property wealth.”
Rauner also slashed a $200 million block grant to CPS, deleted a provision that would adjust for inflation, and is pushing for a new program that would create tax breaks for middle-income families to send their children to private schools — a plan favored by the Chicago Roman Catholic archdiocese.
These changes would hurt districts beyond CPS.
The person who proposed Senate Bill 1 -- State Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hil -- summarizes Rauner’s measures as an attack on public schools.
“This thing is not going to lead to greater equity; it’s not going to lead to adequacy," Manar said. "It is a manipulation of the law to divest the state from public education over time. That’s what it is.”
This game may drag on a while longer. It seems there won’t be enough lawmakers in town to take up business until next week.