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Gov. Bruce Rauner, center, reaches to shake the hand of Illinois Speaker of the House Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, left, after delivering his 2015 State of the State address to the General Assembly at the State Capitol in Springfield Ill. Senate President John Cullerton is on the right. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

Editorial: A once-in-a generation opportunity for Rauner, Madigan and Cullerton

SHARE Editorial: A once-in-a generation opportunity for Rauner, Madigan and Cullerton
SHARE Editorial: A once-in-a generation opportunity for Rauner, Madigan and Cullerton

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For the first time ever, Springfield has a real opportunity to make progress on two fundamental and seemingly unsolvable education-related funding problems in Illinois: Fixing a broken state school funding formula that strains property taxpayers’ wallets and hurts the state’s neediest students, and giving Chicago the same pension funding support that every other Illinois school district long has enjoyed.

This is the promise embedded in a bill passed by the Illinois Senate on Tuesday, a promise wehope House Speaker Mike Madigan and Gov. Bruce Rauner, despite deep philosophical differences on other issues, can find a way to get behind it.

EDITORIAL

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The beauty of this bill is twofold: First, all three state leaders agree on most of its three core elements. Rauner and Cullerton generally support what’s in the bill, and on one of the most controversial elements — more pension funding for the Chicago Public Schools — Madigan has signaled a new openness. As the state’s budget stalemate grinds on, such opportunities are exceedingly rare. As Chicago Public Schools CEO Forrest Claypool, speaking about the provision for equitable pension funding for Chicago,said in a statement Thursday, “For the first time,the governor, senate president, house speaker, and others agree that when it comes to funding our schools, there is an inequity in the system that needs to be changed.”

Second, and most importantly,the bill finally will address key education issues that lawmakers have spent generations trying unsuccessfully to fix. Illinois sure could use a win.

We understand Madigan’s skepticism toward the portion of the bill that requires the state to pay for CPS’pension costs. Madigan has long argued that all school districts should pay for their pensions, just as Chicago does now, but he’s showing signs of a change of heart.And we understand why Gov. Rauner, leveraging the power of his office, would demand limits on collective bargaining rights first. He is determined, as he sees it, to improve the climate for doing business in Illinois.

But it would be tragic missed opportunity if the huge, even historic, reforms at the core of Cullerton’s bill were to be swept away by intransigence. Surely, there must be a road to reasonable compromise. Nobody is asking anybody — Cullerton, Madigan or Rauner — to “blink,” a word that implies weakness and defeat. The goal is compromise, which always proceeds from a position of strength and maturity.

The bill freezes local property taxes for two years — a Rauner ask — and requires the state to kick in about $200 million a year to help pay for Chicago teacher pensions — a Chicago and Cullerton ask. The current state pension arrangement requires Chicagoans to pay for pensions twice; once for Chicago teachers via property taxes and a second time for the pensions of all other Illinois teachers through state income taxes.

The bill also ends the current state school funding formula. That formula, which relies heavily on local property taxes to offset inadequate state dollars, is widely considered unfair, inequitable and in dire need of reform. It forces school districts to jack up property taxes, harming taxpayers, and it punishes property-poor districts by leaving them underfunded. No where is the truism about the quality of a child’s education determined by his or her zip code truer than right here in Illinois.

Illinois can do better — but it never has. Given the competing interests and high stakes, producing a new funding formula has proven exceptionally hard. This bill would give a committee more than a year to devise a new formula, with a sunset date for the current formula six months later. There’s nothing like a deadline to get folks focused. There are big risks here, particularly for well-funded districts. The goal of any new funding formula is to create more winning school districts, not more losers.

The bill includes one provision that ought to be scrapped. It changes the pension payment schedule for CPS, giving Chicago a partial pension holiday in 2016 and 2017. That’s a huge mistake. Chicago and the state are drowning in pension debt today in large part because of past decisions to underfund pensions. Chicago is in financial crisis.

The impulse to live today — tomorrow be damned — is a powerful one. But if we’ve learned nothing else over the last few years as we’ve watched pension bills consume state and city budgets, it’s this: tomorrow always comes — and when it does, the problem always is far worse.

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