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Brown: Cullerton links Chicago school funding fix to other needy districts

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Finally, a Chicago political leader has stood up to say what had to be said about an education funding reform deal to rescue the city’s financially ailing school system.

What Illinois really needs, Senate President John Cullerton said Monday, is a more equitable funding formula for school districts throughout the state, not just for Chicago.

“We’re going to fix Chicago’s funding formula problems when we fix the entire state’s formula, and I don’t see why any schools should be funded until all the schools are fairly funded,” Cullerton told the City Club of Chicago.

I only wish I had written that before he said it.

This has been the missing piece all along in the message from Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Chicago Public Schools leaders as they understandably asked for an to end the disparity in how the state funds pensions for all teachers except those in Chicago.


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Other school districts, from the south suburbs to rural Downstate communities, have school funding problems of their own created by other aspects of the funding formula coupled with the state’s over-reliance on local property taxes for education. Poorer communities simply can’t generate enough money locally to give their children an equal shot at a good education.

Some of those districts may be in in equally poor shape as Chicago, which despite its high concentration of impoverished students, also has great property wealth from which to generate local revenue.

Chicago deserves help. So do the students in Taylorville, Beardstown and Elgin, among the school districts cited by Cullerton as spending less per pupil than wealthy suburban districts.

Maybe it wasn’t Emanuel’s place to make the case for those other school districts. He and Chicago Public Schools CEO Forrest Claypool have had to convince the public of the basic unfairness of the teacher pension funding — as integral to the cost of educating a student as teacher salaries.

But in my own conversations with suburban and Downstate lawmakers, even those sympathetic to Chicago’s plight see no solution coming out of Springfield that doesn’t address their schools’ problems as well.

It was important for a Chicago political leader to acknowledge this out loud and to link the fate of Chicago schools to the others, which is already where it stood in the minds of many legislators.

RELATED: Cullerton: Rauner pension deal likely, but school funding needs ‘turnaround’

Sure, some will say this just adds another complication to an already overly complicated set of political negotiations, especially with Cullerton characterizing this as his own “turnaround agenda” demand.

Changing the school funding formula, which creates winners and losers, may be the heaviest lift of all in the General Assembly. It would probably require money from a tax hike to mollify the losers.

What I’m saying is that this complication always existed. It’s just that nobody was admitting it.

And as far as Cullerton invoking the “turnaround agenda,” I agree with the Senate president that there’s no better place to start an Illinois turnaround, and no status quo more important to shake up than the state’s most inequitable in the nation school finance system.

Cullerton is probably the most reasonable of the state’s top political leaders right now, the one person who truly wants to work out a solution palatable to both Democrats and Republicans.

On Monday, Cullerton clarified to reporters that he and Gov. Bruce Rauner really do have a verbal agreement on a pension reform proposal along the lines Cullerton has long advocated. He also said he is willing to negotiate changes to the state’s collective bargaining laws for public employees, just nothing as drastic as what Rauner has sought.

Some insist Cullerton is just there to do House Speaker Mike Madigan’s bidding, and it’s true that he can’t get too far out in front of his fellow Democrat without running the risk of getting the rug pulled out from under him.

But Cullerton thinks for himself, even if he doesn’t quite have Madigan’s power to impose his ideas.

I appreciate his efforts.

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