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School-funding deal still blurry, but who got what coming into focus

Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, listens as Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner delivers his State of the State address in the Illinois House chamber Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2017 in Springfield. File Photo. (Ted Schurter/The State Journal-Register via AP)

Nothing is set in stone — with Gov. Bruce Rauner and progressive Democrats still trying to chisel away components of a tentative deal — but some major players stand to reap more than others if a historic school funding package follows the outlines being discussed.

Amid a chaotic political climate in Illinois, Rauner and the four legislative leaders said Thursday that they’d reached an agreement. And while the plan remains in flux with official details not yet released, sources have confirmed some of the most important elements, including a private school scholarship and tax program, allowing CPS to exceed the state cap on its property tax levy, lifting some unfunded state mandates from local schools and providing property tax relief for wealthy school districts.

The normal pension costs for Chicago teachers will also be moved from the school code to the pension code, which was in the original Democratic Senate measure. Chicago’s normal pension cost is about $220 million — and the initial bill sought to have the state pay for it by making changes to the pension law. The House, however, wanted the money through a change in education law — which some perceived as a political move. The tentative deal has the money moving back to the original plan. That’s something Republicans fought hard for.

ANALYSIS

What does the governor stand to win from an agreement? He’ll be able to say a historic education deal was reached during his term. But critics would be quick to say his amendatory veto, and dubbing the original bill as a “Chicago bailout” harmed and delayed progress. Rauner is also an advocate for school choice and believes the private school scholarship program will help parents have more choices in where to send their kids. With a deal, Rauner will also avoid the potential for another override and upheaval among House Republicans, which many believe led to his staff purge in July.

House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, left, and Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, talk on the Senate floor Tuesday, July 4, 2017, at the Capitol in Springfield, Ill. File Photo. (Rich Saal/The State Journal-Register via AP)
House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, left, and Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, talk on the Senate floor Tuesday, July 4, 2017, at the Capitol in Springfield, Ill. File Photo. (Rich Saal/The State Journal-Register via AP)

Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan could reap benefits from the deal as well. If it passes, he can say he pushed hard for schools across the state. And if the deal falls apart, he can try to pin the blame on the governor. Tuesday is the last day for action on the original Senate bill, and if the deal falters, Madigan could potentially try to seek votes from Downstate Republicans who aren’t happy about the private school program.

The influential head of Chicago’s Catholic Archdiocese had since June pushed for a private school scholarship program. Through meetings and phone calls, and even to newsletters sent home to Catholic parishioners, Cupich pushed the plan to give a tax benefit to those who contribute to scholarships for parochial and private schools — as a way to replenish enrollment. Initially proposed by Republicans and Rauner as a $100 million scholarship program paired with a 100 percent tax credit, the number was reduced to 75 cents per dollar during negotiations, per the request of Democrats, according to sources with knowledge of the deal.

Democrats, too, agreed to a five-year pilot program, instead of a permanent program Republicans wanted. Limits also would apply to the size of donations as well as the incomes of families who apply for the scholarships. The plan also caps how much money each student could be awarded.

The program will benefit students who have to pay tuition to attend a private school or out-of-district school. That includes religious or secular schools.

ANALYSIS

A smiling Emanuel took to the podium on Thursday evening after a deal was announced, saying the state is “finally being fair” about school funding. That’s a move that may have angered the governor, who a day later noted there are some “bad things” in the deal and said he would want additional legislation to make fixes. His office did not clarify what those changes would be.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel speaks at City Hall Thursday as Janice Jackson, Chicago Public Schools chief education officer, looks on. Photo by Sam Charles.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel speaks at City Hall Thursday as Janice Jackson, Chicago Public Schools chief education officer, looks on. Photo by Sam Charles.

The mayor on Thursday conceded that CPS would be getting “that, and more” when asked whether the embattled school district would get the same benefits as the original Democratic Senate bill.

Emanuel has taken heat for the private voucher program from the Chicago Teachers Union. The Illinois Education Association also opposes the plan. The teachers union called the private school program “a naked attempt by billionaire right-wing ideologue Gov. Bruce Rauner to push through a reverse Robin Hood scheme that siphons money from poor school districts and lets the wealthy avoid paying their fair share in taxes.”

The union is targeting Emanuel for supporting the tentative deal because it includes the private school program, which they deem “vouchers.”

But CPS will keep its block grant and its legacy pension costs by removing it from the pension code, a source said.

In essence, CPS fared well in the deal because Republicans in negotiations pushed for issues that “don’t necessarily meet Democrats’ standards,” a source with close knowledge of the deal said. That included property tax relief, mandate relief, and moving the pension and health care costs to the pension code.

Republicans believed having normal pensions costs within the school code gave CPS an unfair advantage within the education funding formula. That’s because the formula would give CPS credit for having to pay more for pensions.

Politics aside, the biggest winners will be parents and students. Being entrenched in a political war over school funding put many low-income students at risk of not getting an education they deserve. With a funding formula in place, the state could move its way up the school funding ladder from being one of the worst funded states in the country.