Big plans await money from Springfield

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After-school programs for almost 300 Chicago schools, along with preschool and summer school programs for thousands of city kids hung in the balance as the Legislature considered a school funding bill in November and early December.

As Catalyst went to press, local politicians were predicting that Gov. Jim Edgar and legislative leaders had rounded up the four votes they needed in the Illinois House to put a school funding package over the top. The Legislature already had adjourned following its fall veto session, but Edgar called a special session just for schools.

Chicago stood to gain almost $700 million from the package over the next several years, including $300 million for school construction and repair, according to the district’s chief executive officer, Paul Vallas. Possible uses for the other money include:

$75 million to expand the new Lighthouse program to 300 schools.

$21 million to expand the summer Bridge Program to 1st and 2nd grade.

$27 million to provide extra help for kids who have been held back a grade.

$30 million to expand early childhood programs.

Budget caution

As much as $100 million could go to reducing class size in certain grades in some schools, according to Christine Harris, a School Board budget official. But she cautioned that a substantial portion of any new funds must be kept in reserve to assure balanced budgets in coming years.

Local legislators were accused of bowing to special interests by voting against the bill the first go-round. However, the fall bill, which mainly relied on hikes in a variety of “sin” taxes, drew only lukewarm support from local school activists, who preferred the governor’s spring proposal to raise the income tax and provide property tax relief, as well as more school funding. That measure was killed by Senate President James “Pate” Phillip (R-Wood Dale).

The business-backed Civic Committee, a staunch supporter of the spring proposal, expressed reluctant support for the fall bill. Representatives from Designs for Change, another supporter of the spring package, didn’t take a position on the fall bill; instead, they worked to ensure that the proposal wouldn’t yank state Chapter 1 dollars from local schools.

This almost happened last spring, when proposed revisions to the school aid formula replaced Chapter 1 with a new, smaller funding source. Designs got legislators to add a provision ensuring that Chicago would continue to receive at least $261 million in school-based discretionary funds. Both the formula revisions and the Chicago guarantee are in the fall bill.

New coalition

Meanwhile, a broad-based coalition organized by the Metropolitan Planning Council to push for education finance reform lobbied for the new bill—but without the benefit of computer simulations it had used in the spring to show legislators how their school districts would fare. The coalition also noted its concern that property tax relief was missing.

Called Reform 97, the coalition includes more than two dozen organizations, including the Latino Institute, the Union League Club, the Building Owners and Managers Association, Governors State University and Bethel New Life, Inc.

Meanwhile, the busloads of Chicago parents who rode to the state capitol to push for the spring plan were nowhere in evidence during November’s veto session, and the PTA came out against the fall proposal, protesting the funding sources.

The main statewide educator associations also opposed the bill. The Illinois Association of School Administrators and the Illinois Association of School Boards objected to the funding sources, to a proposed cap on administrative expenses for school districts and to changes in the charter school law, all included in the bill. The Illinois Education Association and the Illinois Federation of Teachers strongly opposed the bill, citing both the funding sources and other measures.

‘Took our hit in ’95’

Few of the non-funding reforms would affect Chicago. Several, like increased freedom for school districts to lay off employees or privatize services, basically mirror provisions of the 1995 law that created the Chicago School Reform Board. “We took our hit in ’95,” says Chicago Teachers Union spokesperson Jackie Gallagher. Of the provisions that do affect Chicago, union officials say that most are small potatoes.

The section on charter schools, however, remains “pretty offensive” to both the state and local union, says Gallagher. The bill would give several new advantages to groups proposing or running charter schools. They include:

Groups pitching a charter would no longer be required to have a locked-in site or to present parent signatures as proof that the proposed school would be filled.

The State Board of Education could make start-up loans to charters.

Charters could get more money per pupil than the districts that charter them.

Local districts would have much less authority to revoke an existing charter.

The State Board would be able to overturn a local board’s decision to revoke a charter.

The bill also puts the State Board in charge of offering liability insurance to teachers, something that teacher unions currently do. Anti-union activists promoted this measure, saying it would undermine unions by taking over their functions.