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Local administrators react to school funding reform bill

  • A school bus makes its way down Opdyke Street in Chester. Gov. Bruce Rauner signed Senate Bill 1947 on Aug. 31, establishing a new model for school funding.

    A school bus makes its way down Opdyke Street in Chester. Gov. Bruce Rauner signed Senate Bill 1947 on Aug. 31, establishing a new model for school funding.
    Herald Tribune File Photo

 
 
updated: 9/1/2017 9:40 AM

What's been referred to as "historic" education funding reform passed the Illinois Senate on Aug. 29, one day after lawmakers in the House passed the agreement on the third try.

Gov. Bruce Rauner signed the measure Thursday in Chicago.

Senators voted 38-13 to pass House Amendment 5 to Senate Bill 1947, which created the "Invest in Kids Act" that provides for up to $75 million per year in tax credits to people who make contributions to scholarship funds for private and parochial school students.

The scholarships will be available to students from low-and-middle-income families to help them afford tuition at those schools, with a cap of $1 million per year per taxpayer - who will receive 75 cents per dollar donated in tax credits from the Department of Revenue.

Individuals filing a joint return are considered one taxpayer and the money donated may be to a specific school, but not an individual student. The program will sunset after five years and begins with the 2018-19 school year.

Eligible students must have a total household income of less than 300 percent of the federal poverty level, or around $73,000 for a family of four.

"Obviously as a parochial school principal and a parent, I think school choice is important," said St. Mary's Catholic School Principal Janelle Robinson. "I think we have three great elementary schools in Chester and a great high school.

"As a parochial school, our faith is central to where we are as a school and parents having that option, I think, is important. We don't want to deny anyone Catholic education and are open to the possibilities that (bill) would afford us."

Public school teachers unions across the state have spoken out against the tax credits, which they have referred to as a "voucher program" that takes tax money out of public classrooms.

"Tonight, state legislators moved Illinois closer to doing what we have needed to do for decades -- treat our poorest students and communities fairly," said Illinois Federation of Teachers President Dan Montgomery in an Aug. 29 statement. "Unfortunately, it came at a very disappointing cost.

"Governor Rauner capitalized on the crisis he created when he vetoed the original bill and used it as leverage for private school tax credits that benefit the wealthy while working families continue to struggle."

Local lawmakers were split on the issue. In the Senate, Sen. Paul Schimpf (R-Waterloo) voted for the measure, while in the House, Rep. Jerry Costello II (D-Smithton) opposed it.

"While I have been a supporter of education funding reform, I couldn't support giving millions of dollars of tax breaks for private schools that do not face the financial burdens public schools in Southern Illinois do," Costello said in a text message to the Herald Tribune. "This bill also creates a $75 million dollar hole in the budget. Where will this money come from?"

Schimpf said three factors led him to vote "yes" on the bill, including that it removed the Chicago block grant, puts districts on a path toward equatable funding and removes most of the money for the Chicago teachers' pension shortfall.

"The tax credits were not the driving issue for me," he said. "These were not vouchers, but I am on the record opposing vouchers.

"It was really was the fact that the bill was an improvement over SB1 and that it did keep our schools open."

The House needed three tries to pass SB1947 after the first attempt failed due to objections, raised by teacher unions, about the tax credits. The lawmakers then failed to override Rauner's changes to Senate Bill 1 (the original school reform bill passed in May) before re-voting on SB1947 and passing it 73-34.

"I would also like to point out that Chicago received more money in SB1947 than they did in SB1," Costello said. "Which the governor deemed a Chicago bailout."

Red Bud District 132 Superintendent Jonathan Tallman said he supports the original language of SB1, but not the "compromise language" (such as the tax credits) that was added to create SB1947.

"I think it was a much-needed piece of legislation that addresses adequacy and equity," Tallman said of SB1. "For too long, we've had a foundation level that the state set and now the spending level per student, which will now be called the 'adequacy target,' will now be based on 27 evidence-based factors.

"The bottom line is our state went from one of the most inequitable funding models to one of the most innovative funding models."

SB1947 makes changes in other areas that were not included in SB1, including allowing school districts to cut physical education classes to only three times a week and allow them to contract with private vendors for driver's education services.

Within the past year, both Steeleville and Chester school boards have discussed the cost of continuing to provide driver's education, with the Steeleville District 138 Board of Education voting in July to keep the $150 student fee the same for this school year.

"You have a teacher's salary, vehicle insurance, fuel, maintenance, there's a lot that goes into (driver's education)," said Steeleville District 138 Superintendent Stephanie Mulholland, who noted she is still evaluating the bill.

Chester District 139 Superintendent Brian Pasero said he was still "digesting" the individual pieces of SB1947, including the physical education and driver's education sections, but was happy an agreement was reached.

"I'm pleased that they got something passed that, for the most part from what I've been told, resembles the evidence-based model they were trying to get through," he said.

Tallman also had a question regarding the physical education component.

"The big problem with cutting P.E. is where do you put those students?" he said. "P.E. consumes a lot of students."

Most importantly, the bill's passage allows state aid to start flowing to schools after passage of the state budget required a new school funding reform formula before checks could be issued.

While legislators haggled over the details, the state missed its August general state aid payment for the first time in history.

"The bottom line for me is to start sending the money," Mulholland said. "Get that part going and the rest of it, we'll adjust to."