Rauner signs historic bill waging ‘war on poverty in the classroom’

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Capping months of uncertainty for school districts across Illinois, Gov. Bruce Rauner on Thursday signed a landmark measure that will reshape the way the state funds public education — declaring “we finally got it done.”

Rauner signed the bill in a Northwest Side elementary school gymnasium as school children watched from the bleachers. The governor was surrounded by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Illinois Senate President John Cullerton, Republican leaders and the bill’s House and Senate sponsors.

“Today we are making Illinois history,” the governor said, moments before signing the bill, which he said ensures students will get an “equal chance at an excellent education.”

“We finally got it done, Rauner said. “This is a historic day.”

State Sen. Andy Manar, the Bunker Hill Democrat who sponsored the bill in the Senate, said it “wages a war on poverty in the classroom,” and “ends a great racial divide.”

Gov. Bruce Rauner signs the education bill. Photo by Tina Sfondeles.

Emanuel thanked the governor, a personal friend who has turned into a political adversary, saying “today we’re choosing the students over a failed status quo.”

“Its a historic moment because we’re finally fixing a historic wrong,” the mayor said.

Republican House Leader Jim Durkin also sounded a positive note after more than two years of gridlock in Springfield, saying: “I think this is the start of something that we can do more often.”

Cullerton took a dig at Rauner’s evolving stance on the measure, promising to keep his own remarks short.

“I don’t want to say anything to change the governor’s mind,” Cullerton.

House Speaker Mike Madigan,  Rauner’s chief political nemesis,  did not attend the ceremony,  but issued a statement hailing the bill as “a victory for our schools, our students and our communities.”

“It’s also a victory for compromise that I hope we continue to build on,”  the Southwest Side Democrat said. “By working together and in good faith, even when we do not totally agree, Democrats and Republicans have created a plan where every school district wins.”

The governor included Madigan’s remarks in a press release his office issued after the bill signing.

The governor on Wednesday toured Downstate schools, telling students the agreement should be celebrated for treating students fairly throughout the state for the first time.

On Thursday morning, Rauner also stopped at a high school in Bloomington, where he called the legislation “historic” and one that will help generations of Illinois children.

The legislation is intended to put new money for education into the state’s poorest and neediest districts — and to try to ease the state’s reliance on local property taxes to pay for schools. The system has enabled wealthier communities to pump more money into public education while poor districts fall further behind.

The signing at Ebinger Elementary School in Edison Park caps a tumultuous summer in which legislators left Springfield in July without an agreement in place on how to fund schools. House Democrats had pushed for a Senate Democratic measure, but the governor vetoed it on Aug. 1.

An agreement was reached last week among Democratic and Republican legislative leaders and the governor. Included in the agreement is language that would authorize the Chicago Board of Education to impose a property-tax hike worth $125 million without any involvement from the Chicago City Council. The Board of Education plans to approve the increase, enabling the Chicago Public Schools to get $450 million in new state and local money for the 2017-18 school year.

Schools could see their money within days, according to the state comptroller.

This year, CPS will get an extra $76 million under the revamped formula. Illinois will also pay CPS $31 million for grants, including for early childhood education, and $221 million towards CPS’ normal pension costs.

Rauner had called the initial Democratic measure a “Chicago bailout,” but the bill he signed into law ends up giving CPS even more. Rauner and Republicans, however, were able to agree to a number of items within the “compromise,” including a private school scholarship and tax program heralded by Cardinal Blase Cupich. The tax credits are opposed by powerful teacher unions, including the Chicago Teachers Union and the Illinois Federation of Teachers, that traditionally have supported Democrats. It would provide tax credits for anyone who donates to organizations that would create scholarship funds for low- and mid-income students attending private schools.

At least for the next five years — when the measure will sunset — donors will get a credit for 75 cents on every dollar they give. Democrats estimated the program would provide scholarships for up to 6,000 students

The measure also allows for property tax relief through referendums and includes mandate relief for districts. Schools will be able to outsource driver’s education without waivers and will be able to lower their physical education requirements from five days to three days a week.

The bill also creates a TIF reform commission to study and make changes to the process.


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