Senate GOP wants to keep cost shift issue on radar

Fearing an eventual public pension reform proposal might shift more costs to suburban and downstate school districts, Illinois Senate Republicans are pushing a school transparency initiative aimed at demonstrating Chicago schools are better funded than others in the state.

Legislation sponsored by Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno, of Lemont, was approved Thursday in committee that would require general state education funding to be more clearly delineated in the state budget.

The effort is to combat statements by Chicago Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan and others that Illinois is doling out a “free lunch” to suburban and downstate districts because the state pays toward their teachers’ pension costs. Chicago, by contrast, covers the vast majority of the cost of pension payments to its teachers, while the state picks up the tab in other areas.

Republicans say Chicago schools get more than their share of state money, so Radogno argues the “free lunch” argument cuts both ways.

“Through a variety of special considerations and cases, the Chicago Public Schools actually receive nearly $800 million in “free lunch money” that is not available to their counterparts in suburban and downstate Illinois,” the Republican caucus’ paper reads.

“The net result is a significant budget disparity that treats Illinois’ schoolchildren differently simply based on where they happen to live.”

For instance, Republicans argue, Chicago Public Schools enrolls 31 percent of the state’s low-income children, but got 47 percent of the poverty grants in fiscal 2012. They also argue that Chicago has 17 percent of the state’s special education enrollment, but gets 30 percent of the dollars.

House Democrats hit back with their own presentation this week, arguing that the intent of the poverty grants is to provide poor school districts, not poor students, with supplemental funds.

Democrats argue that special education grants to Chicago Public Schools are more cost effective than the district being reimbursed for special education expenditures.

While none of the current leading pension reform proposals would shift pension costs from the state to suburban and downstate districts, Republicans say they want to continue to head that off by making the issue visible.

“The concern would be if we take our eye off that for awhile, and we get so invested in getting pension reform done, if at the last minute (Madigan) insists on this being part of a package, you have people saying, ‘We’ve come this far, we have to get this done,’” said Republican state Sen. Matt Murphy, of Palatine.

The state board of education said Thursday it was aware of both presentations and said it was “neutral” on Radogno’s legislation.

“As far as this legislation goes, we certainly see the value for more transparency,” spokeswoman Mary Fergus said. “We do see the value of additional study of education funding. We believe it’s time to take another comprehensive look at all of the elements that make up education funding in Illinois.”

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  Illinois Senate Republican leader Christine Radogno of Lemont. Mark Black/
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