Schooling the General Assembly

Education compromise laid foundation for Springfield to function again, says state Sen. Manar

 State Sen. Andy Manar stands outside his Bunker Hill office. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

State Sen. Andy Manar stands outside his Bunker Hill office. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

By Ted Cox

The General Assembly had to go back to school — and to a debate on more equitable education funding — to learn how to function again.

That's the belief of one of the key players in Springfield, state Sen. Andy Manar of Bunker Hill, lead sponsor of the bill that passed last year and was eventually signed into law dramatically altering the state's education funding formula.

That broke years of Springfield gridlock that saw the state go without a budget the first two years of Gov. Bruce Rauner's term in office.

"There was none of that this year," Manar said in a recent interview at his home district office. The General Assembly approved a budget with little acrimony and with no obstruction from Rauner, passing the first budget the governor was able to sign after last year's desperation budget was approved over his veto.

It was Senate Bill 1 on changing the state's education funding formula, Manar said, that first got legislators to see across the divides between Republicans and Democrats, Chicago and downstate, urban and rural communities, to recognize their similarities and common purpose.

"That is such a change from previous years and all because it was building on the foundation of SB1," Manar said.

Manar was uniquely positioned to achieve that compromise in that his 48th District is, in many ways, the state in miniature. The district runs on a diagonal over a vast stretch from Decatur across to Springfield and southwest to Bunker Hill. According to Manar, two of the school systems, Decatur and Springfield, have as many students as the other 24 in the senate district combined.

The state, he said, needed to change its education funding formula to address the perception that, say, Hillsboro students weren't getting the same schooling as those in Decatur. That wasn't getting done under the previous system allotting money on a per-pupil basis.

"There were years and years of this state spending more money and inequity getting worse," Manar said. "We were throwing gasoline on a burning inferno."

According to Manar, the new formula, while complicated, allows not just for spending more per pupil, but allots more where more money is needed to attain the same education level, and also allows for the varying ability of local communities to pay for it. A farm community, for instance, with vast tracts of land owned by relatively few residents, doesn't have the same ability to raise property taxes to make up for an inequity that, say, a well-to-do suburban community does.

The key was getting everyone to recognize their similarities in the desperation for more equitable education funding and that it wasn't a zero-sum game of winners and losers, but a solution that might benefit all.

"The belief in Springfield was you can't help rural districts if you help urban districts, or if you help (Chicago Public Schools) then small downstate districts have to take it on the chin," Manar said. "The biggest difference between the old system and the system today is that it recognizes that different school districts have different needs."

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"There were years and years of this state spending more money and inequity getting worse. We were throwing gasoline on a burning inferno."

State Sen. Andy Manar (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

Politicians from Savanna Mayor Chris Lain to Rock Island Alderman Dylan Parker to Cairo Mayor Tyrone Coleman have all stressed that education is one of the keys to attracting families to an area and maintaining them, and Manar immediately agreed, emphasizing, "That would be the understatement of the decade in downstate Illinois." What was needed was to get everyone to acknowledge that basic point. 

Manar recalled his own trepidation about organizing a statewide conference call on the funding formula. "I had said to a few folks, we should get everybody in the state on a phone call, and I don't know how it's going to go, but we had at least to all start talking to each other," he said. But the receptiveness shown by everyone — grassroots groups, education advocates, concerned politicians, teachers — in pursuing a solution, he added, was remarkable.

"That was the crack in the door that we don't open often enough," he said. "Eventually that started taking root and it was very powerful." He credited grassroots groups above all and how it wasn't a top-down solution handed to people, but something everyone worked on from the ground up.

After the General Assembly passed the initial SB1, it still had to survive one last blast of divisive rhetoric when Rauner vetoed it, labeling it a "Chicago bailout."

"I wasn't shocked," Manar said. "The easiest play in the playbook in downstate Illinois is to show up in Quincy or show up in a downstate community that's struggling, that has been shocked by the economy going back to George W. Bush or even before, to show up in a small rural community in downstate Illinois whose economy has been turned upside down, and point the finger of blame at those people in Chicago and say they are to blame for the problems that you face.

"What we had to continuously do is say, no, no, that may be great politics and that might get you re-elected, Bruce Rauner, but that's never going to solve the problem for Bunker Hill or Gillespie or, to my knowledge, any other small community downstate," he added. "We have to be able to look at other communities in the state that may be absolutely opposite from us in every respect and say, you know, we have some things in common and we have to work on those commonalities in order to effectuate change in the state."

According to Manar, Rauner also undercut his cause when staffers from the Illinois Policy Institute, then in key positions in his administration, rewrote the vetoed bill in a way that made it clearly about politics, not students across the state.

"It's mind-boggling to me that some downstate members in the Senate and the House that benefited most from it couldn't vote yes because the governor was telling them to vote no," he said. "But that's the unfortunate state of politics today."

With the help of persistent community meetings and lobbying, however, they held the coalition together and, with the addition of a $75 million fund to pay for tax breaks for private schools, even got the governor to sign it.

Manar pointed to that victory and to another bill he championed, motor-voter registration, as two issues where Rauner was forced to reverse course. "Those were all things that the governor beat his chest to veto and then turned around to beat his chest to sign," he said.

Now, Manar said, after the state budget passed and was signed with a minimum of conflict, he's waiting for the governor to sign another bill making education more equitable by wiring every school building in the state for broadband internet access. Sponsored by state Rep. Natalie Phelps Finnie, of Harrisburg, it takes $16 million in unspent state funds and pairs it with $50 million in federal funds to grant internet access to schools statewide.

"There are 110 schools that don't have it. Think about that for a second," Manar said. "If you don't achieve equity in access, then we're missing something.

"Hopefully," he added, "the governor signs it."