KADNER: Historic school reform could be another con job

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It’s being called an historic reform of the state’s school funding formula, but I can’t help thinking this could be another in a long line of education flimflams.

For more than 30 years this state’s elected leaders have been making promises to correct deficiencies in education funding, yet Illinois ranks near the bottom of the nation when it comes to state support for public schools.

OPINION

Studies have found Illinois has the worst funding gap between rich and poor school districts in the nation, with a demonstrable financial bias against children of color.

Anyone who has heard about the legislative change to the school funding formula couldn’t be blamed for believing that real reform has come to Illinois. State money will be earmarked to help the school districts in the greatest financial need.

The sponsors of this legislation, state Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, and state Rep. Will Davis, D-East Hazel Crest, are well-intentioned men who truly want to help this state’s children.

But there’s one major problem.

There is no funding source. There is no guarantee of state money for all these inadequately funded school districts in the future.

And that means there is no financial relief for homeowners throughout the state who are suffering under the heaviest property tax burden in the country.

You see, about 67 percent of the cost of public education is paid for with property tax dollars raised by local school districts. The state pays about 25 percent of the cost of public education in Illinois, although the Illinois Constitution plainly declares the state has “the primary responsibility for financing the system of public education.”

A bipartisan school funding reform commission put together by Gov. Bruce Rauner estimated that the state would have to find between $3 billion and $6 billion in additional funds to fulfill its obligation to education.

This was the same panel that recommended the changes in the school funding formula that became the framework for the new legislation.

No one in authority has suggested that those state funding targets were inaccurate. Off the record, people who support this reform bill admit it lacks the money necessary to bring about substantive change.

Years ago, former state Sen. James Meeks recommended a state income tax increase to fund education and provide property tax relief. That bill was killed in the House by Speaker Michael Madigan.

Madigan did eventually support a temporary income tax hike in the House, but none of that money was earmarked for the schools. Meeks, who now is the state school board president, refused to vote for the bill because it did not fund education.

That temporary tax hike was rolled back before Rauner took office, but a new income tax hike was passed this spring. And once again there is no money earmarked for the schools and property tax relief.

There is a proposal to increase general education spending by $350 million this year, but there is no guarantee that will continue in the future. In fact, given all of the state’s financial pressures (including a plan to pick up Chicago teachers pensions), there’s a good chance the state will have no additional money for education.

Rauner is running for re-election and a property tax freeze is a key component of his campaign. If that freeze happens, there would be even less money for schools.

For real reform to actually occur, a dedicated source of new state revenue must be placed in a lock box (so legislators can’t spend it on something else).

Without additional money, this new funding reform will be nothing more than another unfulfilled promise and a betrayal of the public trust. Those who are taking the bows today for making history ought to be prepared to accept responsibility if the public schools suffer once more.

Email: philkadner@gmail.com

Send letters to: letters@suntimes.com.


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