Lawmakers, school leaders discuss school funding bill

CENTRAL ILLINOIS - Legislative leaders reached a tentative deal on school funding reform Thursday. While many say it's a step in the right direction, a new piece of the discussion is causing some concern.

After months of back and forth, many lawmakers are calling this a sign of progress in school funding reform.

"You might say that the stars seem to be aligning for an agreement," says Senator Jason Barickman (R-Bloomington).

Top Republican and Democratic leaders say they've struck a deal in principle on what will likely be an evidence-based funding model, allocating money according to school districts' needs. As details emerge, and not many are, and House and Senate lawmakers are briefed on the agreement, some say there appear to be significant changes. One of those is in funding Chicago pensions, a headed topic in negotiations. 

"The Chicago pensions allowing that to go forth through the city council potentially to raise the tax levy throughout the city of Chicago. That will be something that belongs to them. But the Chicago block grants for public education stays," says Rep. Dan Brady (R-Bloomington). 

Representative Ryan Spain (R-Peoria) adds, "So to me that is one of the important issues that I'm waiting to see if it has been resolved appropriately with the new compromise that we will be learning more about." 

Something else believed to be part of the deal is a $75 Million voucher program for students going to private and parochial schools.

"That is a tax credit that will be totally separate outside of the formula," says Republican Senator Chuck Weaver from Peoria. "So we don't want people to think that we are taking any dollars outside of the school funding formula." 

But this late addition is not sitting well with local democrats.

"Communities in downstate Illinois have been duped by collusion that folks were advocating against what they call 'Chicago bailout.' And that's not true. And if it was so bad, why wasn't it the number one issue to take out of the bill? The number one issue was this backdoor voucher program," says Democratic Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth of Peoria. 

Rep. Gordon-Booth says she doesn't know if it will pass.

Governor Bruce Rauner applauds the leadership, saying he looks forward to legislation being passed. 

"There has been intense negotiations and I thank all my colleagues that have been involved, but now it's time to put the final details together and move forward," says Senator Bill Brady (R-Bloomington). 

Gordon-Booth adds, "I promise you as families and parents and teachers and community members, as they fully understand what this tentative agreement really is, it's going to remain tentative." 

Senator Dave Koehler (D-Peoria) released a statement late Friday afternoon saying, "It is my hope that reasonable compromises can be made that put our state on the path to the first overhaul of school funding in over 30 years. The sooner we have a new formula in place, the sooner our schools can devote all of their focus to educating our children and rebuilding from this financial crisis. However, I remained concerned that we may be opening the door to funding private schools with public dollars at a time when our public schools are in desperate need." 

Nothing is official until lawmakers vote and the bill is signed by Governor Rauner. Top leaders are scheduled to meet again Sunday, and the House is scheduled for session Monday. 

There's excitement as word of the deal reaches superintendents. Unit 5, District 87, and LeRoy superintendents unpacked the need for school funding reform Friday morning to the McLean County Chamber of Commerce. The Unit 5 School Board is considering a tentative budget that includes a structural deficit of $1.2 Million. 

Superintendent Mark Daniel says he is "eagerly awaiting" the conclusion of the crisis, and is encouraged by what he's heard so far. 

"I don't know the details yet, those are forthcoming, but we are hearing that $300 Million and possibly $350 Million the following year. So that's good news and money's being dedicated above and beyond where we are currently," says Daniel.

LeRoy's superintendent says he looks forward to a funding formula based on district need, because he sees it as a step forward.

"As a superintendent, I'm motivated by the interests of the children we serve," says Gary Tipsord. "So in the interest of them, no I don't think we needed to get here. But that was not the only thing being solved."

However, all of the superintendents said they would be opposed to the state allocating money for private schools. 


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