CHICAGO – K-12 education could be the next victim of the political quagmire enveloping the Illinois budget.
Statewide K-12 funding for the next school year could be dragged into the long battle between Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and the Democrats who control the legislature, heightened by a dispute over how to handle the severe financial problems of Chicago Public Schools and the timing of a statewide funding formula overhaul.
The Senate on Tuesday passed on a 31-to-21 vote a bill to revamp how state aid is distributed to districts with the goal of getting more aid to poorer districts that don't reap the benefits of an affluent property tax base.
Republicans labeled Senate Bill 231 bailout for the Chicago school system.
Democrats and Republicans, including Gov. Bruce Rauner, agree that the current formula is flawed, but as with most issues facing the Illinois General Assembly, the two sides are divided over how to tackle the problem.
Rauner and his fellow Republicans are accusing the Democrats of threatening to hold up passage of a fiscal 2017 education appropriation over the aid formula issue and to get additional help for the distressed CPS.
"That's wrong. Our schools should not be held hostage," Rauner said during a public appearance. "We've got to put more money in the schools while we continue to work on a bi-partisan basis to come up with a school funding formula change."
Rauner wants Democrats to agree to approve a stand-alone education funding bill. Illinois has gone more than 10 months without a state budget, but the fiscal 2016 education appropriation was the exception, as the sole piece of the budget both approved by lawmakers last year and signed by Rauner.
Rauner has proposed a $55 million increase in state funding for K-12 schools in fiscal 2017.
At a news conference Tuesday, school superintendents warned of the difficulty in planning for the new school year should education spending be delayed, as it has been for higher education, which has suffered rating downgrades as a result. One district warned it would drain reserves just months into the school year while another said it would have to cut its staff by 40% to make ends meet.
The Senate legislation sponsored by Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, would stave off any negative impact on districts for the first year with the changes then being phased in over the next few years. It would increase funding for some districts like CPS at a total additional cost to the state of $400 million in the first year.
CPS would receive $175 million more under the aid formula and $200 million to help cover teacher pension payments as the state does for other districts.
Republicans attacked the proposal, questioning why CPS would receive the additional funding while also continuing to receive a special share of block grants.
"This bill creates a windfall" for CPS, said Sen. Jason Barickman, R-Bloomington, who charged that by his count CPS would see a $700 million benefit.
"I'm willing to help" provide some help for CPS, "but it can't be a bailout," Barickman said.
"Chicago is underfunded plain and simple," Manar said in defense of the proposed funding distribution changes.
When asked on the House floor if he personally supported holding up passage of the fiscal 2017 education budget over the funding formula revamp, he answered no because that "would inject more uncertainty in the system" and "amplify the challenges that the poorest districts face today."
House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, has a task force working on a House version of a formula overhaul and it may draw from the Senate version, legislative aides said.
The lack of action doesn't bode well for junk-rated CPS, which is set to release a fiscal 2017 budget later this month. Officials must close a $1.1 billion gap and are relying on more state help to erase the red ink. They've warned that without budgetary strides they won't be able to renew credit lines that expire this summer and have said the district needs the short term credit to operate.