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School funding reform, with private school scholarships, heads to Rauner’s desk

Belleville News Democrat

Wednesday, August 30, 2017  |  Article  |  BY JOSEPH BUSTOS AND LEXI CORTES

Education Funding (36a) Haine, Bill--State Senate, 56 , McCarter, Kyle--State Senate, 54 , Schimpf, Paul--State Senate, 58
All that’s left to ensure schools remain open and to send more money to the neediest districts in Illinois is the governor’s signature on a compromise education funding plan.

The Illinois Senate approved the plan with a 38-13 vote Tuesday after the House passed it Monday.

Gov. Bruce Rauner has expressed support for the bill and is expected to sign it, which would send aid money to schools across Illinois for the first time this school year.

State Sen. Bill Haine, D-Alton, was among the local senators who supported the legislation. He voted in favor of the measure on Tuesday.

“For years, Illinois has had the least equitable school funding system in the nation,” Haine said. “Today’s vote in the Senate brings us one step closer to replacing a broken formula with one that would ensure all metro-east schools get the funding they need to provide a quality education to their students. I urge the governor to sign this historic overhaul of our school funding system.”

State Sen. Paul Schmipf, R-Waterloo, also voted in favor of the bill after voting against the original school funding reform legislation known as Senate Bill 1.

“Although the bill was far from perfect, I thought it was an improvement over SB 1,” Schimpf said of the compromise plan. “I felt there were three things that made me decide to vote for it.

One, I did think it put us on a pathway toward a more equitable funding system for our students in the state. It does eliminate the Chicago block grants. It largely removed the Chicago teacher pension shortfall funding that was in SB 1. Not all of it, but most of it was taken out. Lastly, I felt we needed the funding to ensure our downstate school districts ... were going to be able to stay open.”

Some Republicans, including the governor, had been vocal in their opposition to the money that the original bill would have sent to Chicago. Rauner compared Senate Bill 1 to a bailout.

Senate Bill 1 would have allowed Chicago Public Schools to keep its block grants — hundreds of millions of dollars from lump-sum payments that lawmakers negotiated with Chicago decades ago. Another provision of Senate Bill 1 would have required taxpayers to begin picking up Chicago’s unpaid pension debt.

State Sen. Kyle McCarter, R-Lebanon, voted against the compromise plan on Tuesday. He said the decision was difficult and that he didn’t make up his mind until he was on the Senate floor.
“There was a lot of good things in it and a lot of bad things in it, and so I had to weigh that out as to what was really going to come true for the people of my district,” McCarter said. “I think this is a very expensive proposition and the taxpayer will have to foot the bill for it.”

McCarter said he is skeptical that the “evidence-based” funding formula would yield equally positive outcomes for students.

He also noted that the legislation adds $750 million to a budget that is $2.6 billion out of balance, with increases of $350 million a year, and said it would lead to another tax increase.

“I’m not sure it’s fair to promise people money that you don’t have,” McCarter said.

State Sen. James Clayborne Jr., D-East St. Louis, voted “present” on the bill Tuesday.


Tax credits for private school donors
One of the new provisions in the compromise plan that gained attention this week was the $75 million in tax credits for people who donate to private school scholarships for financially needy children.

Opponents, including union groups like the Illinois Federation of Teachers, have compared that provision to a voucher program in which public money can be used to send children from low-income families to private schools. They prefer Senate Bill 1.

Local private school leaders say the compromise plan and its scholarship program would expand school choice for families.

“One of the most important decisions a parent can make is the education of their children,” Michelle Tidwell, Our Lady Queen of Peace principal, said in a submitted statement. She thinks the plan would have a positive effect on the Catholic schools in the Diocese of Belleville.

“Our mission at Our Lady Queen of Peace is to give students an opportunity to grow in the Catholic faith through a total educational experience of academic excellence, personal responsibility and service to the community,” Tidwell stated. “More children will be able to be a part of our mission through the passage of this education funding plan.”

Parents would need a household income of about $73,000 per year for a family of four for their child to be eligible for a scholarship under the plan.

Blessed Sacrament Principal Claire Hatch said that would be “a great thing” for local families.

“I know there’s people who would come here if they could get some extra help, but they just don’t have the money right now,” she said.

Blessed Sacrament already offers financial help for families who can’t afford the full tuition, but “we can only help so many families,” Hatch said.

Illinois Federation of Teachers President Dan Montgomery issued a statement Monday after the House vote that criticized the donor tax credits, which he said benefit the wealthy “while working families continue to struggle.”

Rauner said the compromise plan provides “school choice protection for parents.”

“This is accomplished by ensuring that district-authorized charter schools receive equal funding and by providing families with limited financial resources the same access to private schools,” he said in a statement. “The Tax Credit Scholarship program encourages individuals and businesses to enable families to choose the school that best meets the needs of their children.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

HOW THEY VOTED

Here’s how local state senators voted on the compromise plan:

•    Sen. James Clayborne Jr., D-Belleville: Present
•    Sen. Bill Haine, D-Alton: Yes
•    Sen. Kyle McCarter, R-Lebanon: No
•    Sen. Paul Schimpf, R-Waterlo Yes