Fight to fund schools takes center stage in Springfield
The decades-long effort to send more money to Illinois' least wealthy schools is a key focus for lawmakers as a state budget deadline looms at the Capitol.
But lawmakers are juggling at least four distinct proposals to pay for schools next year -- none yet with widespread bipartisan support -- leaving open the possibility they could finish their annual session next Tuesday with no school budget at all.
House Democrats approved a full state budget on Wednesday that Gov. Bruce Rauner has all but promised to veto because Republicans say it's $7 billion out of balance. But it would put about $760 million more toward low-income school districts.
"It's not realistic. It's not honest," Rauner said. "There's no way to pay for that spending level."
Missing the midnight Tuesday deadline means lawmakers will need more votes to approve a budget over the summer. If they fail to do so, some schools might have a hard time opening their doors in August.
"If we do nothing, the problem doesn't fix itself on its own," said state Sen. Andy Manar, a Bunker Hill Democrat. "The system is going to continue to erode. There will be schools that will not open in the fall."
The Illinois Senate has approved a universal change in how the state would pay for schools, an idea that has split a lot of suburban superintendents because their districts could stand to either gain or lose millions of dollars per year.
A separate plan of Rauner's would add about $55 million to the existing education system, but that idea has drawn heat because some low-income districts would lose more money.
One common thread: Lawmakers often don't want to vote for a school plan in which the districts they represent don't fare well, whether it's because the status quo leaves them needing more money or a change drops how much they receive from the state every year.
And all the proposals call for more money to go into the state's school system at a time when Illinois is already running a deficit and has been deadlocked on a state budget since last May.
Last year, Rauner signed Democrats' education budget into law even though Republican lawmakers voted against it, heading off questions about whether schools would open. This time, the governor and Democrats continue to be at odds over the rest of the state budget, leaving an unclear picture of how schools might fare.
Chicago Public Schools advocates rallied in the Capitol rotunda Thursday, loudly calling for more state funds. At the same time Manar was speaking to the group, their shouts could be heard in a Senate hearing room a floor above, where Democrats pushed ahead with yet another proposal that could be argued -- or changed -- in the coming days.
An element of those plans, which would have the state help Chicago schools by picking up a share of their teachers' pension costs, has been a sticking point for Republicans.
"Democrats' continued insistence on including a massive bailout of CPS ignores the bipartisan framework that I previously suggested," state Sen. Jason Barickman, a Bloomington Republican, said Thursday.
The schools' fight runs parallel to the greater budget stalemate, which has consumed Illinois politics and government for a year. Rauner is asking Democrats to approve some of his proposals, such as a property tax freeze, in exchange for consideration of other tax hikes.
Democrats led by House Speaker Michael Madigan decry some of Rauner's plans as anti-union, and both sides continue to work in private on a compromise.
After Tuesday, any budget plan requires more votes for approval -- a quirk in state law that means any deal cut over the summer would almost either have to be bipartisan or wait until 2017.