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Public Schools Still Waiting For Equitable Funding

Jennifer Bertino-Tarrany

Gov. Bruce Rauner has claimed his top accomplishment of last year was transforming the way Illinois funds public schools. But the dollars pledged by that new law haven’t been distributed. Instead, Rauner and state agencies have been focused on implementing and expanding a tax credit program for private schools, added to the bill at the last minute to get the governor signature.

For the past month, the Rauner administration has been working with the Illinois State Board of Education and Illinois Department of Revenue to implement the tax credit program for individuals and corporations who choose to donate up to a million dollars to private schools. But State Sen. Jennifer Bertino-Tarrant, a suburban Chicago Democrat, has proposed legislation to shift the focus to public schools.

Her proposed legislation, Senate Bill 2236, would require dollars promised to needy schools to go out before tax credits do.

“So (SB) 2236 does not take away tax credits. It simply mandates the state ensures its first priority is public education over large corporations,” she says.

llinois has, for years, had the most inequitable school funding structure in the nation. Some schools in Illinois scrape by with less than half the money needed to provide an adequate education. Other schools have lavish budgets, amounting to almost three times what they need to meet adequacy. Last summer, lawmakers approved a massive school funding overhaul promising $350 million to start repairing that inequity.

Raunervetoed that bill; the private school tax credit program was added as a compromise to induce Rauner to sign it.

When the state board of education staff began trying to implement the school funding reform, they discovered discrepancies between the some technical language in the 550-page bill and the financial models lawmakers used to decide how to cast their votes, and filed a small “trailer bill” to clean up the language. That bill passed unanimously in the House, and on a bipartisan basis in the Senate.

However, Rauner again issued an amendatory veto — this time to expand the tax credit program to include more private schools. In the past few days, staff from the governor’s office, ISBE and IDOR have met to work out a compromise that allows donors to reap the tax benefit of contributing to "registered" schools. Scholarships funded by those donors can't be given out until the school meets the state board of education's much more rigorous requirements for "recognition."

But public school superintendents who had been anticipating more state funding say the governor’s actions have delayed distribution of the $350 million equity funding.

Bertino-Tarrant says the same energy that’s been applied to the bill’s boost for private schools should now shift to the bill’s provision for public schools.

“Many claim public education is a priority, yet their actions are saying something different,” she says. “If the tax credits are very important, important enough to the governor, then he will make sure that we have the minimum funding there every year.”

At a hearing Monday afternoon, ISBE officials declined to say whether the governor's veto should be overridden. ISBE Chief Financial Officer Robert Wolfe said that staff is still verifying data submitted by each of the state's 852 districts, since the disbursements will set a basis for future payments. ISBE plans to begin distributing the $350 million in April.

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