To twist a cliché, when Chicago sneezes, Illinois catches a cold.
Such could be the case with Senate Bill 1, crafted by Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, that tweaks the archaic and imbalanced formula setting how much state money goes to Illinois school districts.
The legislation awaiting approval from GOP Gov. Bruce Rauner has sparked a strong tug-of-war in Springfield — which is really saying something in a state that hasn’t had a proper budget in almost three years.
Supporters say it guarantees any new funding allocated to education be sent to school districts most in need. But critics see the changes as a pure bailout of the Chicago Public Schools, which faces a profound financial black hole and ballooning pension obligations.
In other words, it’s the vintage Chicago-versus-downstate narrative that thwarts so much of our state’s evolution.
Chicago’s sniffles are being heard far and wide, and they might wreck the whole thing. And that’s bad for Decatur schools.
Here’s why: For school districts with high poverty rates, changing the school-funding formula is the clearest solution to making sure money is directed to students in a fair way.
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The Manar legislation, based on input from a bipartisan commission last year, would overhaul the current formula, which underfunds districts and forces the use of local property taxes to cover about 60 percent of costs. Decatur would gain an estimated $2.8 million if the legislation is approved.
The bill, however, is far from perfect, as they rarely are, and there is clearly room for compromise. Especially divisive is that the state would pay a piece of pension costs for Chicago school employees, which also happens for other districts. Rauner has raised similar concerns about Chicago unfairly benefiting.
We agree. The idea of local taxpayers funding pension obligations rubs us the wrong way. Chicago schools, the nation’s third biggest, recently had to borrow more than $200 million for paying pensions costs, and the district has been hobbled by various financial missteps. So they’re not exactly experts on financial management.
However, like it or not, Chicago is part of the puzzle and needs to be part of the solution. While state taxpayers shouldn’t be on the hook, we also have a responsibility that all students – those in Chicago and those outside – get access to quality education. Our path forward as a state is driven in part by having a solid school foundation, from Mount Zion to East St. Louis, Carbondale to Gurnee.
That’s especially true for the Decatur school district. We need a school district that attracts new residents instead of them looking elsewhere. Our school funding formula should be tied to what we need.
All of this comes amid the backdrop of ongoing budget talks in advance of the Friday deadline and the start of a new fiscal year.
We hope the conversations — and maybe compromises — continue in Springfield before time is up.