By Monique Garcia
Democrats and Republicans in the Illinois Senate came together Tuesday to approve legislation revamping how state money is distributed to local schools, ensuring more of the state's education funding is steered toward poorer districts.
Gov. Bruce Rauner plans to sign the bill into law Thursday, his office said. Doing so will authorize payments to school districts after they started their year without two regularly scheduled state checks. It also gives Chicago Public Schools the ability to further raise property taxes to help cover ballooning pension costs.
The overhaul of the school aid formula represents the culmination of an effort years in the making. It often fell apart as communities across the state jockeyed for their piece of the school funding pie.
Now, after partisan bickering left Illinois without a full budget for more than two years, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle were looking for a win -- and a way to avoid blame should schools eventually have to close their doors. The state comptroller's office said the delayed checks could be sent out within days of Rauner signing the bill.
"There will not be another generation of students that are subjected to inequity, the worst in the country, after this bill becomes law," said state Sen. Andy Manar, a Democrat from Downstate Bunker Hill who sponsored the proposal. "It is not perfect. But is this a moment that we should all grab and we should all take ahold of and we should all celebrate together, understanding that there is work to do and there is accountability that has to take place afterwards? The answer is absolutely, without question, in my mind."
The agreement and 38-13 Senate vote Tuesday came after weeks of behind-the-scenes negotiations among the four Democrat and Republican legislative leaders after Rauner used his amendatory veto powers to rewrite an earlier proposal.
Rauner contended that version set aside too much money for CPS, often calling it a "bailout." However, the bill he now plans to enact could result in the Chicago district receiving as much as $450 million in new money -- about $150 million more than in the original bill. It also contains little to reflect the changes Rauner proposed in his veto.
Even so, Rauner issued a statement saying the legislation "will bring historic education reform to Illinois children and their families." Following the vote, he shook hands with lawmakers on the Senate floor.
Some Democrats said Rauner and his supporters were hoping to avoid a repeat of the budget battle, when several Republicans broke ranks and helped overturn his veto of a spending plan and tax hike.
"I think the governor and his allies clearly recognize that both the mood in the General Assembly and public opinion was moving against him," said Sen. Don Harmon, a Democrat from Oak Park.
Republicans countered that they were able to get items they've long sought and wouldn't have secured without the governor's veto.
That includes $75 million in tax credits to help pay for tuition to private schools. In addition, school districts would face fewer requirements on daily physical education classes, and voters in well-funded districts could petition to lower their property taxes.
The tax credit program spawned strong opposition among Democrats aligned with teachers unions who said it's a step toward the privatization of public education. Democratic governor candidate Sen. Daniel Biss, D-Evanston, called it "dangerous" precedent.
"I can't help but ask: What's next?" Biss said.
Supporters said lawmakers should focus on the larger goal of the bill: to invest more state money into schools over time, with the most funding first going to the poorest districts. They also pointed to a windfall for CPS.
Under the legislation, the Chicago Board of Education would be allowed to raise property taxes by an additional $120 million, Democratic legislators said. Cook County Clerk David Orr's office, however, put that figure at closer to $148 million. The new money would go into the Chicago Teachers' Pension Fund.
The state also would make a much larger contribution for Chicago teachers' pensions: $221 million, compared with about $12.2 million last year. That change was not written into the school funding bill but instead inserted into laws governing the state's retirement systems -- reflecting a change Rauner wanted.
The property tax increase, if approved by the school board, would come on top of record-high $543 million property tax increases City Hall is still phasing in to increase contributions to pension funds for police officers and firefighters.
Meanwhile, the Chicago Teachers Union has pushed back hard against the private school scholarships tax credit and is weighing a lawsuit challenging the bill and political strategies to oppose it.
"I know that our attorneys are reviewing it so we can understand what our options are," CTU legislative and political director Stacy Davis Gates said of potential legal action. "Those are all things that we're exploring." She called the tax credit program "a detriment to the school district and a tax shelter for wealthy people and corporations. It's a problem."
If the union successfully challenged the tax credits, the entire school funding measure would be "invalid" under a provision lawmakers inserted into the legislation. That would include the new money authorized for CPS.
Previously, an Illinois Appellate Court in 2001 upheld a state income tax credit of up to $500 for parents for paying "qualified educational expenses" that exceed $250 for the education of children in K-12 private schools.
The credit was challenged based on the state constitution prohibiting government money for religious purposes, including a ban on spending to "aid" or "to help support or sustain any school" that is "controlled by any church or sectarian denomination."
In its 2001 ruling, the Appellate Court noted that a tax credit "does not constitute public funds" received by the government. Instead, "it merely allows people to keep more of their own money."
Chicago Tribune's Rick Pearson, Juan Perez Jr. and Kim Geiger contributed from Chicago.
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