Summer Web: Dimmed prospects for school funding reform

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SPRINGFIELD – Like Cubs fans holding out hope at the end of a heartbreaking season, advocates for school funding reform are focusing on “next year” after a once-promising spring session at the Illinois Capitol ultimately left them empty-handed.

“Next year” in the political realm is an election year, when the governor’s office, two-thirds of the Illinois Senate and the entire Illinois House are up for grabs. Champions of a tax swap proposal designed to bring in more money for schools plan to use that to their advantage.

Pushing a school funding overhaul at the Statehouse “keeps the pressure and the limelight on the issue” during the election cycle, explains Bindu Batchu, campaign manager for the A+ Coalition, an umbrella group for organizations supporting funding reform.

Politicians often run on their commitment to education, and that means they will be sensitive to the need for change, says Batchu. “When we’re talking about education generally, school funding is one of the top – if not the top issue,” she says.

But election years usually pose problems for ambitious proposals, too.

Traditionally, state lawmakers leave the more contentious issues for odd-numbered years and focus their attention on getting reelected during even-numbered years. And voting for a tax hike right before the primary or general elections could prove politically dangerous for legislators.

Even Ron Gidwitz, a Chicago businessman and Republican fundraiser who launched an online campaign calling for school funding reform last year, refused to endorse the far-reaching plans tax swap proponents want when he announced his candidacy for governor in June.

Gidwitz, a former chairman of the Illinois State Board of Education, hopes to challenge Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich in November 2006.

Blagojevich vowed in 2002 that if elected governor, he would not raise sales or income taxes. His determination to keep that campaign promise has been the chief obstacle for tax swap proponents, whose proposal involves boosting the state income tax while offering some property tax relief to get a net gain for schools.

More headway toward reform

This spring, advocates succeeded in pushing their proposal further than it has gotten since 1997, when Gov. Jim Edgar pushed tax swap legislation through the House but couldn’t bring it to a vote in the Senate. This year’s measure made it through Senate hearings, but then stalled before going to the full chamber.

“It was disappointing, that [the proposal] was not voted on by the full Senate,” says Sean Noble, senior policy associate for Voices for Illinois Children, one of the groups backing funding reform. “But it’s still progress.”

That progress came with the backing of a powerful legislative leader who sent the measure to a friendly committee for consideration. Whether tax swap proponents are making headway back home is another question.

Recent polls suggest close to three out of five Illinois residents support the idea, but that level of support has not been enough to force the issue in the past.

Meanwhile, those who are against a tax swap say the idea is losing traction among suburban voters and, increasingly, those downstate. In fact, the Senate measure foundered even without an organized effort to kill it. And the idea never got to the hearing stage in the House.

Senate President Emil Jones Jr., D-Chicago, announced in January that he wanted to make education funding reform a top priority for the spring session. He even created a special committee to look at the issue. Mayor Richard M. Daley also voiced support for the idea. But Blagojevich, another Chicago Democrat, stood by his pledge to veto any increase of the sales or income tax, meaning tax swap supporters would need 60 percent of the members of each chamber to back the idea in order to override his veto.

Getting a 60 percent majority would require that some Republican lawmakers vote for the tax swap, and the vast majority of GOP senators opposed the plan.

“The devil’s in the details. When you start putting pen to paper, you realize the obstacles,” explains state Sen. Peter J. Roskam, R-Wheaton, who spent $40,000 of his campaign funds to run ads opposing the concept.

For example, the property tax relief provisions applied only to taxes levied by school districts, and it would not prevent districts from asking for more property tax money through referenda, he noted.

An earlier version of the proposal also called for expanding the sales tax so that it would apply to services, which backers of the measure say would have generated revenue to address the state’s “structural deficit,” or its chronic inability to pay for current services.

“To me, the term structural deficit means we’ve given up,” Roskam says.

More palatable version drafted

Initially, tax swap proponents championed a measure that would have increased the state sales tax to 5 percent from 3 percent. It was designed to shore up school funding, offer property tax relief and raise additional funds to pay for the state’s basic services. But critics pointed out that the proposal would have raised more money for the state than it earmarked for schools.

So Sen. Rick Winkel, R-Champaign, crafted a more palatable version that just focused on education funding and property tax relief. His measure kept the income tax increase but left the sales tax alone. His bill would have sent some of the extra education funding to community colleges and state universities, including the University of Illinois, which Winkel represents.

The Senate Higher Education Committee approved the stripped-down plan on May 17. The panel proved to be a friendly forum for tax swap proponents. It is comprised largely of Chicago Democrats and downstate lawmakers who represent state universities. No suburban senators sit on the committee. Still, every GOP member of the panel other than Winkel withheld support and voted “present.”

Later that week, Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan joined hundreds of yellow-clad supporters from the “Fund Our Schools” campaign at a Capitol rally in favor of the more ambitious proposal. The demonstration in Springfield was the last stop of a three-day road trip through northern Illinois that Duncan made in an RV to promote the tax swap.

The very next day, Sen. James Meeks, I-Chicago, a co-architect with Winkel of the compromise proposal, announced that it was dead, at least for this spring. After the session ended, Meeks told the Rock Island Argus that he would visit the home regions of a dozen GOP senators in an effort to persuade them—and their constituents—to support the tax swap.

Outlook is dim

But support for the tax swap may be eroding downstate, according to a lobbyist who represents suburban schools.

Donna Baiocchi, executive director of Ed-Red, a consortium of more than 100 school districts, says more voters in downstate communities have grown wary of the idea and are making their concerns known to lawmakers.

A decade ago, principal opposition to the idea came mostly from the suburbs. Suburban districts still object to a tax swap because they have grown to distrust promises by the state, she says.

State lawmakers continue to fall short of their promises on how much money they will give to school districts in grants for transportation and special education , she says. They have not updated salary rates for special education teachers in 20 years, and this year, they skipped out on more than $1 billion they owed the state pension system—including a pension program that covers the retirement of downstate teachers, she notes.

“A tax swap is almost guaranteed to evaporate in a few years” when legislators find new priorities that outweigh property tax relief, Baiocchi says.

Even so, she says, Ed-Red did not work to sink the tax swap proposals that came before the legislature this year because it did not look as if either one was heading toward a full vote.

In the end, the Democrats in the legislature pushed through a budget that would devote $314 million of new money to the state’s schools. Their plan would increase the foundation level, or minimum amount of money spent per student, by $200. It would now be $5,164 per student per year.

The added money for schools includes a $30 million boost for early childhood education, $1.5 million to start a new teacher training program for teacher aides, $2 million more for bilingual education, $2 million extra for new arts and foreign language classes and $1.5 million to pay for more Advanced Placement courses.

All told, CPS would see an increase of $82.2 million under the plan, including $3 million to pay for eye exams and glasses for needy students.

Batchu, the campaign manager for A+ Illinois, points out that Blagojevich routinely highlights the amount of new money that’s been spent on schools since he’s been governor.

“Even the governor recognizes there is a problem [in school funding],” she says. “The problem is getting him to recognize there is a revenue problem.”