School-funding formula is next big fight

School-funding formula is next big fight

The battle of wills between legislative Democrats and Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner continues.

An uneasy peace — defined as the absence of open conflict — has descended on Springfield in the aftermath of last week's budget battle.

But don't be fooled. There's more political intrigue dead ahead, and it has the potential to determine whether some K-12 schools will open in the fall.

As was the case in the budget and tax battle, the main protagonists are Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and the Democratic legislative leaders, Senate President John Cullerton and House Speaker Michael Madigan.

With the budget/tax increase battle finally over — the Democrats won a decisive victory over Gov. Rauner — the issue now revolves around S.B. 1, an important piece of legislation that revises the state's school aid funding formula.

Here's the bottom line. Legislative Democrats, who hold substantial majorities in both the Senate and House, passed S.B. 1 over GOP objections.

Democrats say the bill represents a needed change to the state's antiquated formula that provides too much state aid to financially sound school districts and not enough to poorer districts.

To that extent, there is no dispute. Both Democrats and Republicans support the policy goal of providing more assistance to those who need it most and less to those who need it least.

But Republicans, including Rauner and local state Sen. Jason Barickman, complain that Democrats have, once again, put their fingers on the scale. They say S.B. 1 is too financially friendly to Chicago's low-income students at the expense of the rest of the low-income students in Illinois. Democrats deny that claim. Both sides make credible arguments to support their position.

Here's why the issue must be resolved.

The General Assembly 2017-18 budget sets aside $8.2 billion for K-12 funding, a substantial portion of which is to be allocated to school districts' based on the evidence-based criteria that drive the new formula.

But there is no evidence-based formula in the school code. The evidence-based formula is contained in S.B. 1.

If S.B. 1 — or some version of it — doesn't pass, the state will have no legal authority to begin distributing funds to school districts by the Aug. 10 deadline.

Some districts may have sufficient financial reserves to open for the fall school year. Other may not. Whatever the circumstances, that kind of unsettled situation has the capacity to generate anger aimed directly at Gov. Rauner and Democratic and Republican legislators.

No one should minimize the political fallout that could be generated by angry parents of schools don't open across the state's 102 counties. Rauner and legislators certainly understand the political threat an uncertain K-12 school situation represents.

The big question is what's next.

There is a school of thought that Senate President Cullerton would delay sending S.B. 1 to Rauner in the hope that the closer the school year gets the more likely Rauner will be to feel pressure to sign a bill he doesn't like.

Another school of thought is that, after holding S.B 1 for several weeks, he'll send it to Rauner soon and let the chips fall where they may.

Once the bill reaches Rauner's desk, he can sign it, veto it or issue an amendatory veto that rewrites or excises the elements he views as too Chicago friendly. If he take that course, the bill will more closely resemble Sen. Barickman's alternative proposal, S.B. 1124.

Barickman indicated that under his bill the extra money that would go to Chicago will be spread around to all school districts in a more equitable fashion. That means, he said, districts outside Chicago will receive greater financial support than they would get under S.B. 1.

If Rauner either vetoes the bill outright or issues an amendatory veto, it'll be up to majority legislative Democrats to act. They could any Rauner veto, just as they did on budget/tax increase legislation with some Republican help.

But will legislators from outside Chicago, including state Rep. Carol Ammons of Urbana, support legislation that gives Chicago schools money at the expense of their local schools?

Democratic legislative leaders have to realize that's a problem. So it's also possible that all the skirmishing visible on this issue over the past few months was merely a preview to further negotiations between Democrats and Republicans.

There is, of course, time to work out all the details and avoid further state-inflicted chaos. But it needs to get done soon. The people of Illinois have had to put up with far too much over the past two years because our elected officials have been unable to work out their differences in a way both sides can live with.

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