Editorial: Legislative leaders hold only hope for school funding
Today, 177 state lawmakers are traipsing to Springfield -- assuming they all heed the governor's call -- to try to forge a solution to school funding legislation in time for classes to start on time this fall. Each of the 177 is important, but two are critical.
House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton, both Democrats leading the Democratic-controlled General Assembly, control the dialogue on the floor of their respective chambers. They and Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner are the three individuals who can reverse what we acknowledged Tuesday is an ever-dimming hope for tens of thousands of students in the suburbs and across Illinois.
We urge them not to let partisan posturing derail this last-ditch opportunity.
They can start by meeting face to face. Gov. Rauner told our editorial board Monday he's been open to such a meeting for months. President Cullerton has virtually pleaded himself hoarse trying to arrange one, including yet another appeal Monday. A spokesman for Speaker Madigan told us Monday that while he couldn't guarantee anything, the speaker's "track record is one of attending" such meetings.
So, why don't they start there?
This summer's previous special session on the budget predictably devolved into days of political caucusing and 15-minute sessions. Without direction from leaders, there really wasn't much to do until lawmakers were called to vote with a constitutional deadline and looming investment downgrades pointed at their temples.
It doesn't have to be that way this time -- though it is very nearly at that point already. But if Madigan can cut the portrayals of the governor as a heartless elitist for wanting to assure that all school districts are funded fairly without carving out a special exception for Chicago; if Rauner can calm the campaign rhetoric laying every flaw in the legislation at the black heart of the speaker; if Cullerton can reprise his work as a compromiser and show a willingness to loosen his grip on the school funding bill, perhaps there is a chance.
The stakes are incredibly high, not just for the start of school in the short term but for school funding equity in the long term. But for the insertion of the provisions involving Chicago teacher pensions, this is true bipartisan legislation. It offers the prospect of improving the disparities between rich and poor schools we've chronicled in two years of reporting for our "Generations At Risk" series. It assures that no school system will lose money and many will gain. It is the product of years of trial, study and innovative thinking, and it deserves a better fate than it has experienced so far.
Surely, there must be a way to deliver it. And surely, that way involves three key individuals talking with each other like respectful adults, supported by a cast of lawmakers who themselves are committed to ensuring that a rare chance for substantive improvement in Illinois schools doesn't slip into the dank slime of political rancor and retribution.
No, we can't say we're optimistic about that. But we can plead for it, knowing that the alternative is less constructive operation of schools and more counter-productive political animosity.