For at least 25 years, we’ve been playing divide-and-conquer games over Illinois school funding, with our children as the dispensable collateral damage.
Twenty years ago, Republican Gov. Jim Edgar took up an idea to increase income taxes and decrease property taxes in an attempt to shift more school funding to the state. After all, our state constitution says the state has the “primary responsibility” for funding public education.
Edgar worked with Democratic House Speaker Mike Madigan to get the controversial bill out of the House, but it died in the Senate because then-GOP Senate President James “Pate” Philip of suburban Wood Dale thought suburbanites would end up paying more for schooling Chicago and downstate children. Divide and conquer.
Edgar was asked what was in it for Philip. “Helping the 700,000 schoolchildren in this state who go to schools that don’t have the resources to provide a quality education,” he said back in 1997.
Now, we have Democrats holding on to a new school funding bill for two months and GOP Gov. Bruce Rauner rewriting it because he believes Chicago is getting a bailout. If Rauner and the Democrats don’t find a compromise soon, many school district officials say they will not be able to stay open this year.
All this comes on the heels of a two-year budget impasse during which our colleges and universities were starved of funding to the point of near-death for several of them.
Time and again, Illinois children and young adults lose. The children and young adults who could be the future workers and taxpayers Illinois so desperately needs.
Adding insult to the irony is the fact that Democrats and Republicans on a school commission Rauner created actually agreed on a new, fairer “evidence-based” approach to school funding that ensured, in its first year, no school district would lose money.
The nonpartisan Civic Federation, a government finance watchdog, analyzed Rauner’s amendatory veto of the school funding bill, SB 1, and found many districts outside of Chicago stand to lose funding in future years because of Rauner’s revisions. The state also might fund even less of the overall cost of education, the Federation concluded.
We’re in desperate need of compromise. What if we didn’t keep repeating the past? What if we didn’t let our politicians divide us into camps of envy? What if we took to heart the notion that an Illinois child’s future should not depend on whether she was born in the city, suburbs or downstate?
Civic Federation President Laurence Msall shared four suggestions that could be part of a fresh attempt at education compromise:
- Property tax increases are limited by law in 39 counties. Msall suggests the fair thing to do would be to extend it to all 102 counties. Rauner has campaigned for property tax relief and the property tax extension limitation law, Msall noted, “serves as a shock absorber to limit the level that property taxes can rise.”
- End some of the divide-and-conquer game-playing by consolidating all teachers’ pension funds into one fund. Doing so, he said, would boost transparency. One teachers’ pension fund “can be monitored, so that the fairness arguments can be very transparent and so that there should be actuarial evidence” any time a change is made in the system before the change is made.
- The state’s Supreme Court ruled pension benefits already granted cannot be diminished. Now, we need a constitutional amendment asking voters whether to approve lowering future pension benefits for teachers and other public workers. Chicago has increased its taxes. Illinois has increased its taxes. It’s still not enough to put a dent in pension debt, Msall notes. “There needs to be a recognition that the unfunded liability for all these government pensions is far in excess of what can be reasonably met in the future without dramatic tax increases that would be a detriment to our economy,” he said.
- Come up with a plan for reorganizing higher education based on population and needs, he said, not on general starvation.
No more dividing downstate against the city and pitting the city against the suburbs. Instead, one state that recognizes its tax limitations, but plans for its future by investing in all its children and their teachers. Imagine that. And demand it become reality before another quarter century passes. Make it part of a deal, here and now, that gets every Illinois school fairly funded and open on time.
Madeleine Doubek is Policy & Civic Engagement Director for the Better Government Association.
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