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Thursday, May 19, 2016 12:28 am

Funding K-12 is harder than it looks

PHOTO BY ALAN SOLOMON/TNS
We saw some examples last week of why school funding reform is so difficult to accomplish in Illinois.

House Republican Leader Jim Durkin appeared with Gov. Bruce Rauner at Lyons Township High School, which is in Durkin’s district. Durkin pointed out to reporters that the school would lose $1.9 million in state funding under Sen. Andy Manar’s controversial school funding reform bill.

Leader Durkin also claimed that every school district in his House district would lose funding with Manar’s proposal. Chicago, he noted, would gain hundreds of millions of dollars. Durkin declared that he and his members could not and would not support a plan that shoveled big-time bucks at Chicago while cutting their own districts.

But that’s really the whole point of Manar’s plan. He wants to shift state funding away from wealthier suburban districts like those Durkin represents (14.2 percent of Lyons Township High School students are from low-income households) to districts that have high numbers of impoverished students (86 percent of Chicago Public Schools students are from low-income households). Sen. Manar wants a “hold harmless” provision to make sure no district loses money right away, but that’ll cost quite a bit of cash, which the state doesn’t currently have.

Leader Durkin represents half of Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno’s district, so convincing both of those chamber leaders to sign off on a plan that takes state money away from their own schools is just as difficult as convincing the two Chicago Democrats who head up the House and Senate to agree to Gov. Rauner’s K-12 funding proposal that reduces Chicago’s annual appropriation by $74 million because of the state’s antiquated and complicated funding formula.

Like I said, this ain’t easy.  

The governor has also dumped all over Sen. Manar’s plan. He and his surrogates have slammed the proposal as a Chicago “bailout” and have vowed campaign reprisals.

It’s not exactly the same, of course, but, in a way, Sen. Manar is to Senate President John Cullerton what former state Sen. Barack Obama was to Senate President Emil Jones, who helped mentor Obama’s rise to power.

Manar is Cullerton’s former chief of staff and Cullerton is helping him any way he can. He’s essentially Cullerton’s golden boy.

There is no doubt that Sen. Manar has worked this piece of legislation harder than any individual has worked a bill in recent memory. He has traveled from one end of the state to the other, meeting with school superintendents and other education leaders in an attempt to cobble together a workable plan. He was on Chicago’s South Side just the other day, which produced smirks from some Republicans who believe he’s attempting to use this issue to advance his political career.

But the reality is Manar has Cullerton’s full support, and Cullerton has been far more cooperative about coming up with a deal to end the months-long governmental stalemate than has House Speaker Michael Madigan. So, maybe the governor and his peeps should lay off the rhetoric a bit because things are tough enough.

Cullerton allowed Manar to hold a vote on his funding plan last week, even though Manar and other Democrats went out of their way to declare that the bill needs a lot more work.

Republicans claimed that forcing the vote could very well make it more difficult to reach an agreement on education spending. Many freely admit that the current system is horribly flawed. But the school funding formula is so crazily complicated that any successful revamp will take serious bipartisan effort. And, indeed, talks have been held to devise a more easily constructed “bridge” between today’s system and a future more in line with Manar’s vision.

But the Republicans say by running Manar’s bill instead of negotiating, the Senate Democrats may have very well hardened positions on their side of the aisle. Only one Republican voted for it, after all.

So the momentum has shifted to the other chamber, where a special committee led by House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie is attempting to construct an alternative. But there are those who believe Madigan isn’t serious about getting something done.

But someone had better come up with something soon because Manar said last week there was no way he will vote for the governor’s K-12 appropriations bill because it slashes funding for schools in his district, as did other Senate Democrats. And even some Downstate Republicans who voted against Manar’s bill would prefer a different formula to prevent their own schools from losing state money under the current formula.

We could wind up with no school funding at all.

Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.

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