Lost in much of the hoopla over the process of passing school-funding reform through the Illinois General Assembly is the fact that this is a pretty darned good and far-reaching bill.
While this legislation is far from perfect and doesn't provide an immediate fix, it finally puts the state on a path to equitable school funding based on the concept of actual local need. It's a complicated process and may have to be adjusted, and it will require lots more money from the state, but it sure beats the heck out of dumping money year after year into a dysfunctional formula that benefited the rich and trapped the poor.
And in times of state fiscal strife, the new formula protects state funding for the neediest districts at the expense of wealthier districts. It's tough to argue with that concept.
The local mandate relief is minor, but still somewhat significant. Most local school district mandate waivers are approved by the General Assembly, but that often takes time. This legislation would give the four legislative leaders extraordinary power to expedite those waivers. If at least three of the four leaders aren't thrilled with a request, it will go through the usual legislative process. Otherwise, the waivers will be automatically granted.
Physical-education requirements would be rolled back from five days per week to three, and more students who play sports can be exempted from PE. Drivers' education can be outsourced to private companies, which is the norm in many other states.
One of the realities exposed by this debate is the number of school districts that have built up gigantic cash reserves. The new law will allow local voters to reduce their districts' educational property tax levy by up to 10 percent, but only if the levy isn’t lowered below what's considered to be 110 percent of "adequacy." The political bar is also pretty high. Ten percent of all registered voters in a school district would have to sign a petition to get the measure on the ballot.
The new income-tax credit for donations to private-school scholarship programs is expected to be a boon for some schools. But it could also eventually turn out to be a bane. Whenever you take government money, you have to follow the government's rules. If this tax-credit program is renewed in five years when it's due to sunset, you can probably bet that eligibility requirements will be tightened to protect kids who aren't being properly served by the private and parochial school systems right now.
Also, when ultraconservative legislators such as Representative Jeanne Ives (R-Wheaton) and far-left groups such as the Chicago Teachers Union are vocally opposing a bill, you know you may be on the right track.
Representative Ives has been allied with the far-right Illinois Policy Institute against the education funding reform bill from the start. Opponents of the evidence-based model have privately railed against it as "redistributionist." And they're right because it is specifically designed to do just that while holding all schools harmless unless the state can't meet its funding goals.
Despite the new law’s income-tax credit for private school tuition programs, the Institute and its allies were the biggest losers. The Policy Institute’s takeover of the governor's office resulted in a massively unpopular amendatory veto that Governor Rauner had to eventually abandon or risk being overridden again.
Like the Institute, the Chicago Teachers Union has been harping about the evils of Tax Increment Financing districts for years. But all those TIF opponents got in the end was a legislative-study commission. Maybe something will come of it, but those commissions tend to produce studies that wind up collecting dust on somebody's forgotten book shelf. Only this time, it'll probably be online dust, if that’s possible.
The CTU may have tipped its hand about its true intentions during its briefing of House Democrats a day before that chamber voted, by the way.
While public schools have been hurt by all the new charter schools, CTU President Karen Lewis told legislators that Catholic schools have been "decimated" by the charters. The city's Catholic-school system once rivaled the size of the public system, Lewis explained, but they've been forced to close a ton of schools and this scholarship program would help revive its moribund system.
So by attempting to kill the education funding reform bill, which pumped hundreds of millions of new dollars into the Chicago Public Schools, the city’s only teachers union might have hoped to finally kill off its main private, nonunion competitor.
All's well that ends well.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.