School daze

Rauner veto of ‘Chicago bailout’ cost districts across state

 Lincoln School in Rock Island was torn down in 2012. (Wikimedia Commons/Kepper66)

Lincoln School in Rock Island was torn down in 2012. (Wikimedia Commons/Kepper66)

By Ted Cox

Savanna Mayor Chris Lain ran on a campaign a year ago to attract and maintain families in the small town along the Mississippi River. To do that, he knew, he’d have to help make the local schools attractive as well.

“We already have students who are teaching themselves foreign languages on a laptop because there are no teachers,” he said, “and the same for advanced math classes.”

 Lain expressed disappointment that a bill in the General Assembly to dramatically alter the state’s funding formula for education passed both houses a year ago, only to be vetoed by Gov. Bruce Rauner, who labeled it a “Chicago bailout.”

“It was not,” Lain said. “We’re one of the districts that would have benefitted from the first plan that was put forth that the governor vetoed.”

The Illinois constitution declares that the state should be the “primary” source of education funding, but the state has cried poor for decades in accepting a diminishing proportion of the total school bill for local districts. Unlike the various state pension deals that have been protected in the courts as contracts made with employees, courts have been unwilling to enforce the same sorts of rulings on education funding. So local school districts have been pressed to make up the difference the only way they can, by hiking property taxes.

Some communities, however, have an easier time with that than others.

“When we look back and think about it, there are towns and communities that are doing really well with a property-tax system, but then you come out here,” Lain said. “We have a lot less residents,” 3,200 at the last count. “Our property values aren’t as high. And our schools are suffering.”

Lain got a bit of good news in the March primary. After efforts to pass a 1 percent sales tax had failed, Carroll County voters approved a tax increase for local schools, with 57 percent of voters in favor. But that was after the state funding reform bill that ultimately was signed into law last year altered the formula and, in addition, set up a tax-credit program for private schools that could drain $75 million a year from public coffers.

“We’re back to that, trying to retain what we have and not cut more from education,” Lain said. “So it was not just a Chicago bailout. It would have also built in a more fair funding of our schools out here. So it was very disappointing to me.”

The final bill reduced funding for Savanna schools “quite a bit” from the original bill, Lain added. “We ended up getting a little bit of an increase. Then there was a decrease in federal (funding). So it really was a wash.”

Lain's predecessor as mayor of Savanna, state Rep. Tony McCombie, voted against both bills. She said measures slipped into them on Chicago Public Schools pensions and "hold harmless" provisions on diminishing enrollment did amount to a "bailout," but she also opposed the tax credits for private schools in the final bill.

McCombie agreed, though, that more needs to be done to pay for education in smaller communities, where property taxes are tapped out. "We don't have the rooftops," she said. McCombie advocated an "evidence-based" system that was watered down in the General Assembly. "It's really going to look at the areas that have less, and they're going to get more compared to other areas that are self-sustaining," she said. "The biggest piece of it is what your economics are in your community," McCombie added, "what your local capacity is."

McCombie warned that, by passing the tax increase earlier this year, District 71 might have actually hurt its case for future state funding increases for education. "It scares me to think about what that's going to do to our local capacity," she said. "Now your local capacity went up and you might get less from the state."

Damned if you do, damned if you don't — Illinois education funding in a nutshell.

Yet McCombie agreed good schools are key to the vitality of communities, saying, "Education across the board and how functional our schools are, that's one of the things people with children look for, absolutely."

At the other end of the state down the Mississippi, Cairo Mayor Tyrone Coleman also expressed disappointment over Rauner’s veto of the original education reform bill. Dismissing charges that it was a “Chicago bailout,” Coleman said, “It would have been an uplift for all.

“Anything that would benefit education would benefit Cairo,” he added. “It wasn’t just Chicago.”

Cairo has suffered through almost a century of dwindling population, so that the 2,400 residents who remain can’t be squeezed any more than they already have. The problem has been worsened by a federal Housing and Urban Development crisis that has cost the town additional residents.

“There has to be another way of funding education than the property tax, because it’s just not a just way or fair way,” Coleman said. He blamed political divisiveness in trying to pit Chicago against the rest of the state.

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"There has to be another way of funding education than the property tax."

Cairo Mayor Tyrone Coleman (One Illinois/Zach Sigelko)

“We’re no different than anywhere else,” Coleman added. “It’s just that we allow people and other officials, all of these things to drive these wedges and fragment us off from one another rather than capitalizing on our diversity, on our strengths.”

Rock Island Alderman Dylan Parker echoed that in insisting that diversity is a strength in his local school district, where he has two kids enrolled. That’s especially true given Rock Island’s historic openness to immigrants.

“The one thing you hear a lot is that at lunchtime there are 33 different languages being spoken. ‘How can you teach in a school like that? How can you get anything done?’” Parker said. “Instead of that being a bad thing, change it so that you say, ‘You want your kids to get a world education?’ All these corporate places, they want to hire people with global corporate experience. Flip it to convince these middle-class families … sell it that way. By the time your kid leaves middle school, he’s probably going to know Swahili.”

Rock Island has sustained its population, but it’s landlocked by the Mississippi and Rock rivers, and pinched in by the other Quad Cities on the Illinois side, so that it can’t expand into farmland and build its tax base the way, say, Bettendorf, Iowa, does. Parker granted that puts it at a disadvantage when it comes to funding schools and, ultimately, comparing test scores between schools on opposite sides of the river. But he pointed out that Rock Island nevertheless produces more Fulbright scholars than any other district in the Quad Cities.

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"I can advocate for the diversity of our schools, but we’re also obviously coming out with some pretty bright students."

Rock Island Alderman Dylan Parker (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

“I can advocate for the diversity of our schools, but we’re also obviously coming out with some pretty bright students,” Parker said. “How can you compare that with test scores? There’s something here in Rock Island of an active citizenry, a youthful participation in politics and environment, that you’re not getting in some of these other middle-class communities.” College recruiters, too, have come to value and prioritize students from diverse urban areas over those from more homogenous communities.

Again, however, Parker said it’s all one big issue with a lot more that unites Illinois school districts than divides them. “The devastation of public schools across Illinois hurts us here, because it’s causing us to ignore the positive aspects to living in Rock Island. Only looking at the test scores and standards that only well-to-do communities can succeed in, that’s not fair, in my opinion.”

McCombie agreed, pointing to how Savanna has to compete against not just Iowa, but also nearby Wisconsin to the north. "I don't believe their kids are any smarter than ours are," she said.

Parker, however, also blamed Rauner’s veto of the initial school reform last year. “Thanks a lot, Rauner,” he said. “Our local school districts were very supportive” of the original bill, and local residents let their state legislators know about it, but it was all for naught with the veto.

Like Parker, Lain insisted that good schools are an investment in the future in any town. “They draw additional people into your community,” he said. “Those kids coming out of those schools are our future leaders and our future business owners, and if we don’t invest in them at that time in their life we’re going to suffer down the road.

“It’s not only investing in their future,” Lain added, “it’s investing in the future of our community.” 

 

Ted Cox