Tug of War.” Credit: toffeehoff

August 2, 2017; Chicago Tribune

Nonprofits in Illinois have been breathing a lot easier since a full-year budget was finally enacted. But state funds for local public schools are now in limbo, the victim of the continuing political tug-of-war that had kept Illinois budget-less for more than two years.

On Tuesday, August 1st, Republican Governor Bruce Rauner partially vetoed a bill that had established a new funding formula for Illinois public schools. According to the Chicago Tribune, he took this action because he felt the bill had been structured by the Democratic-controlled state legislature to unfairly favor Chicago Public Schools.

Rauner rewrote the measure to take away a $250 million block grant that Chicago Public Schools has long received and changed how the funding formula weights CPS pension funding when dividing up new money for schools. The governor said his amendatory veto would keep an extra $221 million for CPS pensions, but put it in a separate appropriation which would have to be approved by lawmakers.

The governor described his action as “not about taking resources from Chicago. This is about making historic changes to help poor children in Chicago and throughout the state of Illinois.”

He further explained his thinking in comments to reporters:

All of our children should be treated equitably. SB1 in its current form basically took the significant increase in school funding that I have advocated for and diverted hundreds of millions of dollars of it away from the classrooms around the state and diverted it to Chicago.

State law gives the governor the right to change specific parts of the bill as part of an amendatory veto. The Illinois legislature now has 30 days—15 for the House and Senate each—to consider and accept his changes or let the bill die, making it impossible for the State to begin sending any funds to local school districts. Because the legislature is now in a special session, a supermajority would be needed to consent or override the veto, as desired. Legislative leaders had hoped the governor would delay issuing his veto so the clock would not begin and they would have time to work out a compromise. That hope has now been dashed.

The revised funding formula was designed to fix a longstanding approach that many felt did not recognize the rising costs of educating high-risk students nor compensate for school districts with low property values that limited their ability to fund themselves as wealthier districts did. Without an approved funding formula, the state funds expected to begin arriving in local school accounts on August 10th won’t come.

The governor’s decision continues the ongoing battle between a staunch Republican who believes in a limited government and wants to lower taxes and a Democratic leadership who opposes him. With his 2018 reelection campaign already heating up, the governor may be trying to shore up his base by starting a fight over funding for Chicago Schools.

Chicago’s mayor, Rahm Emanuel, responded quickly, accusing the governor of thinking solely about “his own personal brand of cynical politics.”

It is well past time for Gov. Rauner to stop playing politics with our children’s futures, start demonstrating leadership and ensure a child’s education isn’t determined by their ZIP code or his political whims.

Democratic Speaker of the House Michael Madigan, who has been cast by Gov. Rauner as his archenemy, said in a statement that “The governor has yet again chosen crisis over compromise, but Democrats will continue to work with legislative Republicans in order to enact education funding that is fair to every student, every school and every community.”

State funding contributes only a small portion of the budgets of wealthier suburban districts. For them, the delay in receiving state funds will not pose a major challenge. Poorer districts rely more heavily on state funds and have limited reserves to draw upon. For them, the delay will be difficult and may cause immediate reductions in school programs and services. The hundreds of millions of dollars that the governor has said should not be going to Chicago Public Schools have been included in a very tight budget by the CPS school board. Losing these funds will mean serious cutbacks, affecting thousands of children.

With the clock now counting down, the resolution of this standoff is unclear. As with the state budget, it is possible that a bipartisan supermajority can be forged to override the veto and let the law go into force as originally enacted. It is also possible such a majority can be forged to give approval to the governor’s specific changes and leave Chicago children holding the short end of the stick. Perhaps a new formula can be crafted that both the governor and the Democratic leadership can sign off on and it can be passed. All that is clear is that local school leaders have some immediate work to do as they develop plans to go forward with a new school year without state funds in the bank.—Martin Levine