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Top 7 things you need to know about the school funding mess

School children walk a safe passage route along 63rd Street

| AP file photo

Following a meeting Sunday of the legislative leaders, a long-awaited school funding reform bill might actually become law.

The bill — which Sen. Bill Brady pegged at 500 pages — is intended to put new money for education into the state’s poorest and neediest districts, to try to equalize education in the state that relies heavily on local property taxes to pay for its schools.

Activists and legislators have tried for decades to bring about a change in the state’s school funding formula and appear, after recent snags, to be close to pulling if off.

“The governor is 100 percent behind it, and he’s on board,” Rep. Jim Durkin said on his way with Brady into the meeting in House Speaker Michael Madigan’s office, allaying concerns from Friday that Gov. Bruce Rauner had changed his mind about a tough-won agreement among the leaders and governor Thursday.

“The governor will sign this,” Brady said. “None of us are getting everything we want. This is a true compromise.”

He concluded before walking into the meeting which Democratic Senate president John Cullerton joined by conference call: “That’s why we’re going to land it tomorrow.”

The leaders plan to meet again at 9 a.m. at the Capitol.

Once the meeting was over, Durkin characterized its purpose as tying “up loose ends but we’re down to minutiae.”

So is it over yet?

Alas, it is not. Leaders met Sunday afternoon, and the House is slated to meet Monday morning. Plus the agreement reached was “in principle” and “in concept.” If the House passes what’s been proposed, the Senate is expected to move quickly — likely Tuesday — so schools can get their money. And it then needs Gov. Bruce Rauner’s signature.

What’s in it?

Leaders won’t officially say, but details have leaked. Sources have confirmed major inclusions as 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.

When will schools get their money from the state?

Not yet! The deal still needs to be formally approved by both legislative chambers and the governor. Once the Illinois State Board of Education has a new funding formula in hand, it’ll take about a week to start disbursing money. It’s not clear how fast the state’s school board will be able to catch districts up on payments already due on Aug. 10 and Aug. 20 — and due again on Sept. 10 and Sept. 20 — a spokeswoman said, but they will eventually be caught up.

Is my school going to lose money?

No. No district is supposed to lose any money under the new funding formula, which allocates any new money in the education budget to the poorest, neediest districts first. CPS is in line to get the pension parity it wants, meaning the state would pay the normal costs of pensions of teachers in Chicago as it does with all other districts. It’ll keep its block grants because Rauner was adamant that no district lose any of its current funding, and it’ll get more from the per-pupil formula owing to the large number of low-income students enrolled in CPS.

What’s with the $75 million in school vouchers?

First, they’re not vouchers, which would be public money or tax credits provided directly to families paying tuition. What’s been proposed are tax credits for anyone who donates to organizations that would create scholarship funds for low- and mid-income students attending private schools. At least for the next five years — when the measure will sunset — donors will get a credit for 75 cents on every dollar they give. Though it’s not yet clear how any of that will happen.

How can my kid get a scholarship?

That’ll depend mostly on your family’s income, but also on how much the private school costs. And they’re only for students in K-12, not preschool. Families can’t earn more than 300 percent of the federal poverty level, about $73,000 for a family of four. And students can receive only the lower of either what the actual tuition costs or the tuition equivalent of their public school district’s tuition. It’s not yet clear where families would apply, or who will determine each student’s eligibility, though priority is said to go to students who qualify for free- or reduced-price school lunch.

Are the scholarships just for Catholic schools?

No. And they’re not just for religious schools either, despite strong lobbying from religious leaders including Catholic Cardinal Blase Cupich. The scholarships would be for students who’d attend any tuition-based elementary or high school. So, technically, it could apply to public schools in other districts if they accepted out-of-district students.