Drove to St. Charles on Thursday night for what was billed as a town hall meeting on school-funding reform.
I was expecting an old-fashioned community debate about the merits of Senate Bill 1, the rewrite of the state’s education funding formula that has become the latest bone of contention between Gov. Bruce Rauner and the Democratic-controlled Legislature.
Without a funding formula in place, some school districts might not be able to open for the fall. And even if they do, they won’t have enough money to stay open for long.
The legislation already has been approved by the General Assembly, but Democrats withheld the bill to avoid a promised amendatory veto by Rauner.
That cat-and-mouse game is expected to end Monday, when Senate Democrats release the bill to Rauner. If he goes ahead with his veto, the Legislature will have 15 days to accept his changes, override him or neither.
Unfortunately, only a handful of folks turned out for the St. Charles event, all of them supporters of the legislation. There was no debate, but I did receive a good primer on the new funding model.
I’m hoping most people understand by now that the main problem with school funding in Illinois is that our over-reliance on paying for schools through property taxes creates a system of haves and have-nots.
We have relatively wealthy school districts, most of them in Chicago’s suburbs, that provide their children with excellent educational opportunities.
And we have school districts with relatively little property wealth, both Downstate and in some suburbs, that have vastly fewer resources to tap for their students. These same districts often also have the highest percentage of low-income students, who cost more to properly educate.
To even out these disparities, legislators and educators have been trying for years to devise a funding formula that could get more state money to these poorer school districts to make up for their shortage of local funds.
Those efforts always fell apart because they relied on taking money away from the wealthy districts, whose taxpayers already feel shortchanged by the state.
The other obstacle was how to deal with Chicago, a city with great property wealth in its downtown but also the greatest concentration of low-income students.
That’s complicated even more by two peculiarities in the existing funding structure — Chicago taxpayers are the only ones required to pay for their teachers’ pensions, but CPS also receives a special state block grant that other schools don’t.
This year, legislators tried a different approach. They started with the premise that no matter what formula they devised, all school districts would be held harmless — so that they receive at least as much state aid as they’ve been getting.
Negotiators devised what they call an “evidence-based” formula to try to identify what it takes to operate a good school system, such as small class size, while also factoring in the obstacles, such as the percentage of students learning to speak English.
In the end, Democrats also inserted a provision for the state to make annual payments toward CPS pensions, which drew Rauner’s ire.
Tony Sanders, CEO of the state’s second largest school district, U-46 in Elgin, is one of the biggest supporters of the finished product.
Sanders, who came to Thursday’s town hall, told me nearly 60 percent of his district’s 40,000 students come from families living below the poverty line.
He objects to Rauner’s plan to take away money in the bill that would go to Chicago and redistribute it to other districts, including his.
“If prior bills failed because they took away from the rich to give to the poor, why would I support a bill that takes money from the poor to give to the rich?” Sanders said.
Chicago has many good allies in this fight. Over the next two weeks, we’ll find out whether that’s enough.