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Gauen: Schools at heart of latest unnecessary Illinois crisis

St. Louis Post Dispatch

Thursday, August 3, 2017  |  Commentary  |  By Pat Gauen

Education Funding (36a) , Governor (44) , Legislature (56) , Taxes, misc. (89)
I was delighted the year that my back-to-school supplies included the latest binder with a pencil case secured by a magnetic clasp. There was a wonderful sense of starting over with fresh notebooks and sharpened new pencils for the beginning of classes in the fall.

It never occurred to me to worry about whether the school district had enough money to open its doors, or to keep them open. Kids, and I think most parents, have always taken free public education for granted.

The word “free” doesn’t apply so much anymore. Book charges, activity fees and other out-of-pocket costs may runs hundreds of dollars per child in an Illinois school that might once have covered such expenses with taxes.

Lately, given perpetual dysfunction in Springfield, the price of basic education has become an issue too.

After years of underfunding the state’s share of school spending, lawmakers came up with a more realistic income tax a month ago to avert a total budget collapse. But they have been in debate ever since over one provision that came with their first budget in three years: a requirement that school aid not be paid until there’s a new method to distribute it.

There may be no more complex issue in Illinois government than education, nor any more important.

More than 2 million children depend upon over 1,000 school districts to teach them skills to be capable adults. The process consumes the largest share of Illinois tax money at both the state and local levels.

The educators’ jobs would be a challenge even if it rained cash. Students come from all imaginable social and economic backgrounds. Teachers and administrators must deal with everything from underfed and abused kids to bored young geniuses to rigid parents with difficult expectations.

It never does rain cash, of course. And the state’s money sprinkler doesn’t irrigate evenly. That may be a surprise for the take-it-for granted parents, and a thorn for those divided either by party or geographical loyalties.

You might expect Illinois simply to divide the number of dollars by the number of students and send checks per capita to the districts. But not all the students — or their circumstances — are the same. And a dense-as-lead school aid formula put into effect 20 years ago tries to address that.

Profoundly disabled youngsters might each require tens of thousands of dollars a year in services from a district that otherwise spends only a fraction of that per child.

Moreover, the cost of living is greater in the Chicago area, translating into higher expenditures for salaries and supplies.

And most importantly, while districts pay the bulk of their costs with property taxes, their access to local revenue is not equal. Those with an affluent tax base can take better care of themselves.

All of those factors played into Senate Bill 1, a just-in-time school formula overhaul that lawmakers sent to Gov. Bruce Rauner on Monday. His administration responded Tuesday by saying he was pleased with 90 percent of it. The rest he excised with an amendatory veto power not possessed by his counterparts in Missouri or most states.

The House and Senate now can vote to endorse his amended version, override it in favor of the original SB 1 becoming law, or let it die and create a mad scramble to do something else in time for school to start. Any vote would require a three-fifths majority, by the way.

In particular, Rauner feels SB1 language gives unfair advantage to Chicago schools, and would make it difficult for the state to someday try to hand its teacher pension obligations over to local school districts.

It is hard for an ordinary mortal to form a point-by-point independent opinion of each aspect of the proposed law. But one element is clear: It is just nuts to still be debating this only a week before the next school aid checks are supposed to go out Aug. 10.

Just as the governor and legislators procrastinated beyond crisis time for a budget and income tax increase, they have created a new artificial emergency for themselves — and for public schools, too. While it is unclear whether the opening of any districts would be delayed, some have said they may not stay open long without arrival of state dollars.

This continued recklessness is irresponsible. Does any important issue in Springfield receive the benefit of an unhurried consensus? Another year with the old formula, however flawed, might be better than an embarrassing slapdash process that for yet another year could leave local educators wondering at the 11th hour how much aid they will get, and when.

Statehouse officials need to remember there are a couple million kids waiting, with fresh notebooks and sharp pencils.