Sometimes You Have To Hold Your Nose And Vote “Yes”

On Monday, the House finally passed an education funding bill. The last time the legislature passed a funding bill was in 1997, and in those 20 years, the formula has been changed to the point where the original was barely recognizable. I’ve written extensively (here, here, here, here and here) about how and why the formula became so unworkable.

My feeling was that if we had gone back to what the formula was before it was changed in 2004, we’d have a funding mechanism that would be reasonably progressive and would meet the needs of most school districts. However, the changes that were made to the formula took money from the General State Aid formula and moved it into the Poverty Grant and the PTELL Grant, which had the effect of concentrating funding into districts which had higher concentrations of poverty, primarily the Chicago Public Schools. That left the rest of us to rely to a greater and greater extent upon property taxes to pay for education.

I could spend hours discussing what went on to get us where we ended up, but I think it’s more important to tell you why I ended up voting for a bill that contains many of the things I originally voted against.

As I mentioned above, I thought we could make funding more equitable by rolling back the changes that were made to the 1997 funding bill rather than impose a 27-step model that even Rube Goldberg would have envied. That’s why I voted “no” in committee on H.B. 2808 (the original “evidence-based model” bill). When the bill came back to the House as S.B. 1, which included a laundry list of sweeteners for the Chicago Public Schools, I was a “hell no”.

The Governor’s amendatory veto of the bill took out many of the Chicago sweeteners, and I came out in support of the veto, but hoped that further negotiations on the bill would progress to give us something better. However, the Democrats in the House did what Democrats often do, which was to engage in political theater by taking the language of the amendatory veto, plug it into a shell bill (S.B. 1947) and rush it onto the floor for a vote.

So on August 16th, the Speaker called us all to Springfield to vote on this sham of a bill. They had no intention of voting for it, and fully expected us to vote to uphold the veto. However, our caucus stood firm and to the surprise of everyone, we all voted “Present”. This had the effect of forcing the Speaker to back down and agree to further negotiations which led to the bill which the Governor is signing today.

While the bill still contains many of the things which I found objectionable in S.B. 1, it provides for things which would never have been enacted if we hadn’t forced the Democrats to the table. Among them:

  • The normal pension costs for the Chicago Public Schools was taken out of the education bill and put into the Pension Code, where it belongs;
  • The bill takes $50 million of newly appropriated money and provides property tax relief to districts in low-EAV/high levy districts. It’s the first step to what I hope will be a movement to cap property taxes statewide;
  • It provides mandate relief for school districts for P.E., driver’s education and gives a streamlined process by which school districts can seek relief from other unfunded mandates;
  • It authorizes the City of Chicago to raise its property tax levy to pay for teacher pensions. Given that the city is responsible for that train wreck, it’s only fair that they be made to fix it;
  • It creates a commission to examine our system of Tax Increment Financing (TIF) which will hopefully lead to a way for schools to share in the increased property wealth that comes from economic development;
  • The bill provides for a tax credit program whereby up to $100 million can be donated to provide scholarships to low-income children to go to private and parochial schools. People who donate can receive a credit equal to 75% of their donation off their state income taxes. I’m not crazy about this. Though I fully favor school choice, it should come from money appropriated by the General Assembly. There are better ways to provide parents with the means to send their kids to the schools of their choice, not by blowing a $75 million hole in the budget.

I spoke about my concerns for the bill on the House floor. You can see my comments here:

Rep. Reick: A Reluctant Yes on a Less Than Perfect Bill

Watch this video on YouTube.
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