After ed funding, it’s on to the next crisis

It’s been clear for decades that the way Illinois funds its

public schools has been wrong-headed. But finding a solution has eluded

everyone who has tried. Until now.

Gov. Jim Edgar thoroughly defeated a Democratic rival in

1994 who championed a “tax swap” idea. The plan Dawn Clark Netsch backed would

have traded an income tax hike for local property tax reductions and an overall

funding increase to local schools. For years, property taxes had been rising

while the state’s share of overall education funding had plummeted. But Edgar

focused on the income tax hike in Netsch’s plan and pummeled her at the polls.

Well into his second term, Edgar unveiled his own school

funding plan, which turned out to be eerily similar to Netsch’s proposal. His

proposal was backed by House Speaker Michael J. Madigan, who had spoken briefly

during the 1970 Illinois Constitutional Convention in favor of school funding

reform. The plan was killed by Senate President Pate Philip, a suburban

Republican who pointed out that the voters had already thoroughly rejected

Netsch’s proposal.

Philip also strongly opposed a last-minute provision to help

Chicago Public Schools pay for its teacher pensions. The state picks up all the

employer and legacy costs of teacher pensions for the suburbs and Downstate,

but not Chicago. And that has been a bone of contention for years.

James Meeks, an African American minister of a huge

congregation on Chicago’s South Side, was the next to take up the mantle. Meeks

was elected to the Illinois Senate as an independent in 2002, and he made

education funding reform his top priority. Meeks threatened to run as an

independent candidate for governor in 2006 if incumbent Democratic Gov. Rod

Blagojevich didn’t come up with his own plan.

Blagojevich convinced Meeks to get out of the race by

unveiling a proposal that vastly increased school funding by privatizing the

lottery. But after Blagojevich was safely reelected, he double-crossed Meeks

and didn’t follow through.

Meeks spent the next few years attempting to pass a huge tax

hike package, mainly to help public schools. But it stalled when Speaker

Madigan wouldn’t put his House majority at risk.

Along the way, Meeks attempted to organize a boycott of

underfunded Chicago Public Schools and brought busloads of kids to suburban

Winnetka in a failed bid to enroll them in the top-ranked New Trier High

School. He also championed the idea of using tax money to help kids enroll in

private schools.

It turns out that a Winnetka resident at the time, Bruce

Rauner, wound up being elected governor a few years later. Meeks backed Rauner

in the 2014 campaign and Rauner, a school choice champion, appointed Meeks

chairman of the Illinois State Board of Education.

At the time of the 2014 election, state Sen. Andy Manar, a

Democrat from the tiny southern Illinois town of Bunker Hill, had already been

working on the school funding problem. Manar had quit his job as Senate

President John Cullerton’s chief of staff to run for the legislature in 2012,

so he had far more skills and experience than the typical freshman.

After he was inaugurated, Gov. Rauner hired an education

funding reform point person, Beth Purvis, and put her in charge of a study

commission that actually wanted to get something done this time.

The next two and a half years was filled with excruciating

political infighting that made even the most hardened insiders blanche. It

looked like it would all go off the rails more times than I could count. And it

really almost did when the governor used his amendatory veto powers in July on

a bill passed by both the House and Senate in May.

Rauner constantly derided that bill as a “Chicago bailout.”

But his amendatory veto introduced new concepts that hadn’t been discussed by

his commission and, therefore, brought opponents out of the woodwork.

Faced with yet another revolt by some of the same

legislative Republicans who overrode his vetoes of the state budget and income

tax hike, Rauner was finally convinced to pare back his excessive

demands.

Rauner did win a school choice component: a five-year income

tax credit for donations to private and out-of-district public school tuition

scholarship funds that Chairman Meeks backed. But he also ended up signing a

bill that provided more money for Chicago Public Schools than the one he

vetoed, including, finally, some significant state cash for Chicago teacher

pensions, a proposal he vetoed almost two years ago.

Without Manar, Purvis and Meeks and those who preceded them, none of this would

have happened. And now we can move on to the next Illinois crisis.

Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and

CapitolFax.com.

Rich

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