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Rauner takes a stab at school funding with new bipartisan group

Gov. Bruce Rauner, flanked by Illinois Secretary of Education Beth Purvis, is shown earlier this month as he announces he'd formed a bipartisan commission to propose a new school funding formula. | Lou Foglia/Sun-Times

Though legislators have long stumbled over this task, Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner announced Tuesday the formation of a bipartisan commission that will propose a new formula for funding education in the state by Feb. 1.

The governor cited financial struggles in districts all over the state as motivation to keep momentum going from recent discussions and improve the way Illinois funds its schools.

The early 2017 deadline would permit legislators to take up a bill in spring session — a tight deadline, he acknowledged, but one that’s doable “partly because there have been efforts.”

“I think there’s a frustration level of wanting to get something done, I also think the financial pressures that school districts are facing, the state is facing, the city of Chicago is facing,” Rauner said at the Thompson Center. “There’s lot of motivation to try to improve the system. . . . Granted, this is going to be hard. But I’m optimistic.”

The governor intends for his secretary of education, Beth Purvis, to lead the group of 25 — five chosen by each caucus leader plus four more who’ll serve at the governor’s request. He’s also named his lieutenant governor, two other members of his administration and the regional superintendent of schools for downstate Henderson, Knox, Mercer and Warren counties.

No Democrats joined him at his press conference, however, the leaders he’s feuded with over funding issues in the past have signed on.

“We look forward to working together to solve this lingering problem,” said John Patterson, a spokesman for Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago.

Among Cullerton’s appointees is Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, who has led several recent attempts to redo the formula so that poor districts that have historically been shortchanged get more help. House Speaker Michael Madigan also released his list of five names.

Madigan spokesman Steve Brown said the speaker will provide the commission with a complete record on constitutional amendments to tax millionaires to pay for schools, which Rauner has opposed, and declaring school funding as the state’s paramount duty.

Of all 50 states, Illinois provides the least amount funding to its school districts, which depend heavily on property tax wealth. That inequity emerged again and again during the battle over the state budget, when Rauner refused to sign off on any proposal that caused any districts to lose money — even if they were wealthy.

He also opposed increasing taxes to raise overall revenue for education that would fill in gaps. But Tuesday, Rauner said he was “open to new revenue.”

Although it’ll be seven months before the governor’s commission issues its recommendations, Mayor Rahm Emanuel hailed the panel as the continuation of a seismic shift in his efforts to get more funding for the nearly bankrupt Chicago Public Schools.

“In June, at the urging of the Legislature, we finally started to right the wrongs of decades of inadequate funding when it comes to educating and penalizing poor kids and kids of color. We took a big step,” the mayor said in a telephone interview with the Chicago Sun-Times.

“In the last 19 months, both chambers have been trying to grapple with this issue. It’s been around for a while. Everybody finally rolled up with their sleeves. The governor signed a bill that’s a byproduct of that work trying to recalibrate how much we fund and making sure poor kids are not treated like stepchildren. I welcome the governor’s willingness to work on it, to finally fix a broken formula and fix it in a way that doesn’t treat our kids like stepchildren.”

After saying for weeks that he would not support a CPS bailout, Rauner signed a bill that could mean up to $600 million more for CPS.

But $205 million of that money is contingent on legislative approval of state pension reforms. The governor also insisted that Emanuel increase his offer to raise property taxes for teacher pensions by 47 percent — from $170 million to $250 million.

That’s on top of the $588 million property tax increase approved by the City Council last fall for police and fire pensions and school construction.

On Tuesday, Emanuel chose to view the school funding glass as half full.

Sure, it’ll take a while before the school funding formula is rewritten and there’s no guarantee that the Illinois General Assembly will approve those changes given its history of dodging the vexing issue.

“If we were starting from scratch, nobody would design the funding formula we have today penalizing poor kids. The governor is acknowledging the work that’s been going on in Legislature trying to grapple with this problem. That, to me, is a real turnaround,” Emanuel said.

“The fact that he wants to create this commission is an acknowledgment that you cannot double-down on a funding system you say is broken. Righting the wrongs of a broken funding formula demands more attention, not less. More resources, not less. That will be a true turnaround for the state of Illinois.”