School stunner: ‘Compromise’ education bill fails in Illinois House

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SPRINGFIELD —The Illinois House on Monday failed to pass a compromise school-funding measure, voting it down 46-61 after more than an hour of debate.

The vote cast what was thought to be a historic step forward for public-school funding statewide into sudden doubt. Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and legislative leaders had pledged support for the bill, making Monday afternoon’s action all the more stunning.

House Republicans had agreed to get 30 votes for the bi-partisan deal. But just 16 Democrats voted for the measure, leading to its demise.

While Rauner’s nemesis, Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, and his top deputies supported the compromise, the vote shows the speaker didn’t want the bill to pass as is.

It was to have replaced an initial Democratic-sponsored school-funding bill that the governor vetoed on Aug. 1. Tuesday marks the last day the House can override that veto, and the “compromise” vote failure sets the stage for an override vote.

If the override fails, Democrats can try again to approve the compromise bill.

The compromise was reached after weeks of negotiations — and was struck as a way to get both Republicans and Rauner on board. An override would require Republican votes, and there have been no GOP lawmakers on record so far who have said they’d support an override.

Both the original and compromise school-funding bills are 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.

But the compromise bill also includes a controversial $75 million private school scholarship and tax credit program which critics have dubbed private-school “vouchers.”

The lengthy bill, totaling some 550 pages, includes a hold-harmless provision to ensure schools don’t lose money; allows Chicago to raise its property tax levy to fund teacher pensions, and also allows for property-tax relief for some school districts via referendum.

State Rep. Peter Breen, R-Lombard, called the measure a way to “take the schoolchildren out of the line of fire.”

“We need to end the uncertainty,” Breen said. “This would be the first major education-funding compromise in decades.”

The vote came after a lengthy House Democratic caucus, with some members saying they couldn’t support the deal because of the private-school element.

That aspect concerned some Democrats, specifically Chicago lawmakers, and is opposed by powerful teacher unions, including the Chicago Teachers Union and the Illinois Federation of Teachers.

The tax-credit program was backed by Rauner, Republicans and Cardinal Blase Cupich. 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 would get a credit for 75 cents on every dollar they give. Democrats estimated the program would provide scholarships for up to 6,000 students.

State Rep. Mary Flowers, D-Chicago, voted “no” because she said the private school program should have warranted public meetings. “To me, this issue is too important,” she said.

State Rep. David McSweeney, R-Barrington Hills, was among the Republicans not on board with the measure, namely because of the inclusion of a potential bump in the property-tax levy for Chicago to pay its teacher pensions.

The measure included language that would allow the Chicago City Council to raise the city’s property tax levy to bring in $120 million more in new tax dolllars to pay for pensions.

Other Republicans supported the measure, calling it a bipartisan compromise that will help schools throughout the state.

Earlier Monday, Chicago’s school board president said he supported the bill, saying the benefit to Chicago Public Schools vastly outweighs a tax credit benefitting private schools. And CPS’ take could total $450 million, said Frank Clark, whom Mayor Rahm Emanuel appointed to head the Board of Education. For the third year in a row, CPS is depending on promised state funding to try to balance its budget that the board will vote on Monday afternoon.

Clark said he supports the details he’s heard about the deal, which includes “vouchers”.

“I cannot balance $75 million against $450 million CPS would benefit from,” Frank Clark said, referring to the scholarship tax-credit proposal.

Contributing: Lauren FitzPatrick

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