If you’ve seen Gov. Bruce Rauner’s campaign commercials, you might think the school funding issue was settled last summer. But as often happens with complex legislation, it was followed by a “trailer” bill cleaning up some technical language. Rauner decided to use his veto pen on that bill to lower the bar for private schools to qualify for a controversial tax credit program. Now, the Illinois State Board of Education is warning that “time is of the essence” for the General Assembly to uphold the trailer bill (Senate Bill 444). Without it, nearly 200 Illinois school districts will lose out on equitable funding.
“If the changes included in SB 444 are not enacted, 178 school districts will see a reduction in their funding based on their inability to access local resources that the way that the law is currently written credits them for,” says Jackie Matthews, spokesperson for the state board.
She declined to release the list of districts, but it appears that Chicago Public Schools would be the biggest loser. During the years-long fight to overhaul the state’s school funding structure, Rauner and other Republicans argued relentlessly against any formula that sent new dollars to CPS. In fact, Rauner almost tanked the massive school funding reform bill last summer by using an amendatory veto to cut millions of dollars from CPS.
Ultimately, CPS was in a position to gain more money after lawmakers hammered out a compromise by adding a tax credit for donors to private school tuition scholarship programs.
It’s that tax credit scheme that Rauner now seeks to expand via his amendatory veto of the trailer bill.
In the school funding bill approved by lawmakers, private schools have to earn the seal of “recognition” by the state board of education in order to participate in the tax credit plan. Rauner’s amendatory veto would also allow private schools that have merely “registered” with ISBE — a significantly lower standard — to qualify for the same tax credit program.
“Registration essentially only involves submitting certain assurances and information to the board,” Matthews says.
For example, one of the things that recognized schools have to do that registered schools don’t is ensure that their students are immunized against common childhood diseases. Other differences include criminal background checks on staff, and on-site visits to confirm that the school meets health and safety standards.
Lowering this bar is the sole request in Rauner's amendatory veto; he didn't request any changes to the trailer bill itself. But because the trailer is necessary to enact the larger school funding reform bill, his veto could derail the changes that he has described as his highest accomplishment of 2017.
The reform he's boasted about enacts a new school funding structure that uses evidence-based metrics to calculate exactly how much money each district needs (this is called an adequacy target), and how much each district can raise through local resources. State Superintendent Tony Smith, speaking on WTTW's "Chicago Tonight," said ISBE has found schools that can provide more than 200 percent of their adequacy target, while others can't even muster 50 percent.
The trailer bill was written to clarify that property tax extension limits and enterprise zones should be incorporated in the calculation of local resources. Matthews says that clarification is necessary to make the law match the financial models lawmakers used in deciding how to cast their votes.
Rauner's veto would throw off the calculations for 178 districts, costing them a total of $37.8 million.
The General Assembly returns to the statehouse later this month. Meanwhile, all school districts are continuing to receive the same state funding they received last year.