Chicago schools grant criticized by Rauner was put in place by GOP in 1990s

Just days before many suburban schools are scheduled to open for the year, Gov. Bruce Rauner is planning to veto a key school funding bill sent to his desk at the eleventh hour, potentially leaving schools that have low cash reserves without funds to keep the lights on.

At the heart of that fight is a lump sum of about $250 million sent to Chicago Public Schools each year since the mid-1990s. The money, called a block grant, is often criticized by Republicans as a freebie for the city not available to other schools around the state.

What's often lost in the debate is that it was Republicans - including a key contingent from the suburbs - who put the block grant into place as part of a major 1995 Chicago school funding package. The legislation was sponsored by state Rep. Mary Lou Cowlishaw of Naperville and passed with wide Republican majorities in the Illinois House led by Speaker Lee Daniels of Elmhurst and in the Senate, where James "Pate" Philip of Wood Dale was president.

"Chicago Public Schools and the city colleges are in financial and educational crisis," Cowlishaw, who died in 2010, said during the 1995 floor debate. "This is an attempt to address that crisis."

The legislation gave direct control of the school system to the Chicago mayor. The block grant was designed to give Chicago a lump sum instead of state reimbursements for programs like special education, transportation and bilingual services, which other districts around the state receive. The aim, Cowlishaw said then, was to "increase the financial flexibility and reduce administrative burdens" for the 400,000-student district.

"Chicago has its issues and problems today, but it was so much worse in 1995," Republican former state Sen. Kirk Dillard of Hinsdale said last week. "But like any major reform, the 1995 school law needed to be looked at and reviewed and updated more frequently than it has been."

Lawmakers have spent recent days in Springfield for a special session called by Rauner designed to get the school funding formula, approved more than a month ago, to his desk. Democrats delayed sending it to the Republican governor in an attempt to force Rauner to sign it without changes. The governor finally received the bill Monday afternoon and promised "swift action."

Getting money to schools usually isn't so complicated. But the 2018 state budget passed by the legislature includes a provision preventing schools from getting state dollars unless Rauner signs a new "evidence-based" funding formula into law.

Rauner calls the formula passed by the legislature a "bailout" for Chicago schools because it contains $215 million for underfunded Chicago teacher pensions and another $250 million for the block grant. Rauner has said Chicago should get one or the other, not both, in this legislation.

"Chicago has received a special block grant that no other school district gets," Rauner told the Daily Herald editorial board. "They have skipped pension payments in Chicago for years, even while the state was making a $250 million annual special block grant that no other district got."

Former Illinois Rep. Jeff Schoenberg of Evanston, who later became a state senator, said he received "considerable criticism" from fellow Democrats for voting for the 1995 bill. He said recent comments by Rauner about the block grant "attempts to turn history inside out and drive a political argument that pits Chicago against the suburbs and downstate."

If Rauner ultimately amends the school bill, state lawmakers in both chambers must either approve his changes or vote to override them with a three-fifths majority - a difficult task on such a regionally divisive subject.

If lawmakers fail to act, the entire bill will die, meaning schools won't get any of the $6.76 billion tied to the passage of a new formula.

"The Republicans in my caucus really did care about Chicago schoolkids," Daniels recalled.

However, he called state politics "a new day and age."

"You have to sit down in willing negotiation, so you get to a compromise, which government is based upon," Daniels said. "In the past, Madigan, Cullerton, Pate Phillip, myself have all understood it's our responsibility to come together ... but there doesn't seem to be that will today."

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Republican former state Sen. Kirk Dillard of Hinsdale said 1995 school funding changes resulted from compromise, "but there doesn't seem to be that will today." Daily Herald File Photo
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