Campaign: $4 billion for schools

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Education funding reformers in Illinois are eternal optimists, seeing every legislative session as their big chance to dramatically increase state funding of public schools.

This year, though, there is reason to believe they may actually pull it off.

The latest in a string of developments that bode well for funding reform is the revamped and well-funded legislative campaign by A+ Illinois, a coalition of nonprofit organizations and unions that support education funding reform.

On March 1, the coalition addressed an issue on the minds of skeptics who are concerned about how new funds would be used. It released a detailed list of policy priorities, along with pricetags noting how much each will cost, that focus on raising the quality of instruction and holding schools accountable for student performance.

More than half of the $4 billion cost would be earmarked to raise the minimum level of per-pupil funding that each district gets from the state.

Also on the horizon: another school funding and accountability proposal from the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus, which recently convened a hearing of experts to help flesh out their platform. It is expected to be released later this month.

Following the November elections, state Senate President Emil Jones Jr. (D-Chicago), who has long pushed for more school funding, is more powerful than ever with a veto-proof majority of Democrats. One of those new Senate Democrats, Michael Frerichs of Gifford, won his seat with a campaign focused on school funding reform.

Also, a bipartisan coalition of state legislators has formed an education caucus and is open to tax increase proposals.

And the state’s ongoing fiscal trouble—bills are backed up by more than $2 billion, says Comptroller Dan Hynes—is going to force lawmakers to broaden the state’s revenue base.

If lawmakers agree to take the political risk of raising taxes to shore up the state’s bottom line (strained by billions of dollars owed to pension funds), they may also be inclined to hike them a bit further for schools, a more popular use of tax dollars, say funding reformers.

New analysis of funding disparities

A supermajority of Democrats in the Senate assures this chamber can override a veto from Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who insists he won’t raise general tax rates. Democrats also control the House, but not by a wide enough margin to override a gubernatorial veto without Republican support. Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) has not backed any of the current school funding proposals, though he agrees something needs to be done.

“I’m clearly for making the distribution of state money to schools districts more equitable,” he said at a January press conference. “There are certain districts that need more help from the state than others.”

An analysis of statewide school spending by The Chicago Reporter shows that the cumulative effect of such disparities can add up to more than $100,000 per student. In Rondout School District 72 in north suburban Lake County, students who entered kindergarten in 1996 and left 8th grade in 2005 received the most expensive elementary school education in the state.

During that nine-year span, Rondout’s per-pupil expenditures totaled $167,885—more than $45,000 above the next highest district, and at least $100,000 more than the K-8 expenses for over 600 other Illinois school districts.

The least expensive elementary education during that period is posted by Central School District 51 in downstate Tazewell County, which spent $38,816 per pupil. Chicago Public Schools spent $74,798, ranking 92nd out of 760 school districts analyzed.

“For too long, we’ve allowed the gap in education between students who live in poverty and those that come from wealthier districts to exist,” says James Dougherty, president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers (IFT), whose largest member is the Chicago Teachers Union.

Coalition proposes how to spend new money

The IFT is one of eight key organizations that comprise the A+ Illinois coalition for school funding and tax reform. Others include the Illinois Education Association, the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, the Metropolitan Planning Council, the Illinois Farm Bureau, the Chicago Urban League and the state employees union.

Over the last year, the coalition has landed two grants—$600,000 from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and $200,000 from the Chicago Community Trust. Six new field organizers have been hired to target Latino voters and key geographic areas: Chicago and the surrounding suburbs; Springfield and central state; and the metro East St. Louis area.

The group’s legislative platform calls for a host of school funding and quality initiatives that include improving teacher quality, early childhood programs, improved instruction at low-performing schools, special education and assessing need for school construction and maintenance.

Whether their work will resonate at the Capitol, compelling lawmakers into action, is not clear.

State Rep. Lou Lang (D-Skokie) says it will take a constitutional amendment eliminating property taxes altogether. “Unless we’re forced, we won’t act,” Lang says.

The legislature is scheduled to end its session on May 31, but many already speculate it will work well beyond that to craft a state spending plan.

The current tax proposals

Jones has staked out education funding reform as his chief priority for this session and it is expected that his Senate Bill 1, now a blank slate, will be crafted into the compromise plan that will ultimately come before legislators.

Sen. James Meeks (D-Chicago) is again sponsoring a tax swap proposal that would raise money for schools by increasing state income and sales taxes while lowering property taxes. The measure, known as Senate Bill 750, would hike the personal income tax rate from 3 percent to 5 percent and the corporate rate from 4.8 percent to 8 percent. The bill also would expand sales taxes to cover services such as lawn care that are currently not taxed.

Supporters say the plan would generate another $5 billion a year for the state, which would be allocated to schools and to local taxing bodies in the form of grants to reduce property tax bills. The additional revenue would also help fund public retirement systems. Rep. David Miller (D-Dolton) is sponsoring identical legislation in the House.

Meeks is hopeful the governor will support his proposal but notes that lawmakers can muster enough votes to override the governor if necessary. “With an automatic veto-proof majority in the Senate and with Speaker Madigan’s ability to speak wisdom to his entire body, I don’t think it would be hard for us to override a gubernatorial veto,” Meeks says.

Madigan has implied his willingness to consider a tax increase, calling a recent report by the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago “a wake-up call.” The report pegged the state’s unfunded debt at $106 billion, about $8,800 for each resident.

Members of the newly formed Education Caucus, who include Sen. Kimberly Lightford (D-Chicago) and Reps. Roger Eddy (R-Hutsonville) and Jerry Mitchell (R-Rock Falls), say they will examine the gamut, from funding reform to school quality to accountability.

What Blagojevich is doing

Meanwhile, Blagojevich has failed once again to convene a meeting of the state’s Education Funding Advisory Board, a five-member panel that is required by law to recommend a per-pupil “foundation level”—the minimum amount of money that must be spent on each child enrolled in an Illinois public school.

The advisory board blew a Jan. 1 deadline to issue a report on the updated foundation level. Two years ago, the advisory board was unable to meet because Blagojevich failed to appoint its members. Under threat of a lawsuit, the governor named new members, and the board subsequently recommended a foundation level of $6,405 per student.

That level has not yet been met. Currently, the state ensures funding at the rate of $5,334 per student. The State Board of Education recently recommended raising it to $5,689 per student, which, if approved, would be the largest jump in nearly a decade.

The A+ Illinois campaign is calling for a new foundation level of at least $6,615, a measure that would cost the state $2 billion more a year.

Meeks’ bill would raise per-pupil funding to $5,952 next year. Each year thereafter, school funding would increase based on an inflationary index. Frerichs is sponsoring a similar bill that anticipates annual adjustments to foundation funding.

Sticking to his pledge not to raise taxes, Blagojevich last year proposed raising money for schools by selling or leasing the state lottery, a plan that has gained little traction among lawmakers. Yet in late January, officials from his office solicited proposals from firms interested in the deal.

Blagojevich has continued to avoid discussing the state’s ongoing fiscal woes. In his January inaugural address, he took credit for helping “underfunded” schools, but did not detail his education plan.

His next opportunity to layout his education plan will be this month, when he delivers his budget address on March 7. He has indicated a willingness to close corporate “tax loopholes” to generate more cash and has not ruled out the possibility of creating more gambling casinos to replenish state coffers.

Reporter Jeff Kelly Lowenstein of The Chicago Reporter, Catalyst’s sister publication, contributed to this report.

To contact Aaron Chambers, send an e-mail to editor@catalyst-chicago.org.