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Governor Rauner’s school-funding Hunger Games

The Illinois governor is once again toying with the futures of Chicago Public Schools students.

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Illinois governor Bruce Rauner vetoed Senate Bill 1, the education aid distribution bill, on August 1. SB1 has to pass by August 10, when the first school aid payments are supposed to be distributed, or it's dead. - JUSTIN FOWLER
  • Justin Fowler
  • Illinois governor Bruce Rauner vetoed Senate Bill 1, the education aid distribution bill, on August 1. SB1 has to pass by August 10, when the first school aid payments are supposed to be distributed, or it's dead.

It was like Groundhog Day for public education recently, as about 40 or so Chicago parents, students, and activists did pretty much the exact same thing they did at about this time a year ago: headed north to Illinois governor Bruce Rauner's house to protest his school funding policies.

That's Rauner's residence in Winnetka, as opposed to his ranch in Montana, or his condo overlooking Millennium Park, or any of the other homes he owns throughout the country.

Obviously last year's protests fell on deaf ears, because this year's school funding inequities may even be worse last year's.

With less than a month to go before the start of the school year, Chicago Public Schools students are looking forward to the likelihood of classroom cuts, especially in special education, and a shortage of money that will force the system to borrow to pay its basic bills. In short, more of the dreadful same. On August 7, sure enough, CPS announced it would lay off nearly 1,000 employees, including 350 teachers.

"I try to stay hopeful, but things are getting worse," says Mary Fahey Hughes, a mother of four CPS students from Beverly who showed up at Rauner's house on August 2.

Well, let's look on the bright side: At least Rauner's paying more in taxes on his Winnetka property—roughly $96,000, up from $82,000 last year.

Unfortunately, none of that money will bridge the gap between the winners (like Winnetka) from the losers (Chicago) in the school funding Hunger Games. All of Rauner's property taxes will remain in Winnetka, so they won't help the kids in the state's poorer school systems.

As we should all know by now, the problem with school financing in Illinois is that schools depend on locally raised property taxes for most of their funding. A city like Winnetka can afford to pay about $8,000 more per child than Chicago because it's a wealthier community.

If we want to erase this inequity we need to create a progressive income tax, i.e., one that raises taxes on people who can afford to pay more—like our billionaire governor. And that money should be targeted to poorer districts statewide. Instead Illinois has a flat income tax, which Rauner's in no hurry to change.

Moreover, at the moment no schools—rich or poor—are getting any state aid. Even though legislators passed a budget last month, over Rauner's veto. That's because on August 1 the governor vetoed Senate Bill 1, the education aid distribution bill.

So, yes, the new budget raised the amount you'd pay in taxes. And, yes, part of the taxes you pay should be going to schools. But the state can't distribute school aid until Senate Bill 1 is passed. As he'd promised, Rauner vetoed it, claiming that it would somehow give an unfair advantage to Chicago.

It's like Rauner's protecting the state's wealthiest people (his neighbors in Winnetka) from having to spend money on the poorest districts (like one the protestors attend).

Parents, students, and activists marched through Illinois governor Bruce Rauner’s Winnetka neighborhood on July 25 to protest cuts to the Child Care Assistance Program. - STEFANO ESPOSITO/SUN-TIMES
  • Stefano Esposito/Sun-Times
  • Parents, students, and activists marched through Illinois governor Bruce Rauner’s Winnetka neighborhood on July 25 to protest cuts to the Child Care Assistance Program.

It's not clear if the governor and statehouse Democrats can reach a consensus on SB1. But there's a pressing deadline, August 10, when the first school aid payments are supposed to be distributed. Negotiations got a little trickier with the revelation that Rauner recently met with Cardinal Blase Cupich, the head of the Catholic Archdiocese. The cardinal's pushing for a bill that would offer up to $100 million in tax credits to parents who send their kids to private or parochial schools.

Raising the possibility of tax credits at this late hour is a cagy political move on Rauner's part. He's found a wedge issue to pit parents of kids in public schools, like Hughes, against her neighbors who send their children to Catholic or other private schools.

If the Democrats buckle and agree to those tax credits to get Rauner to approve SB1, there will be less money for the public schools to receive once the state starts distributing the funds. In short, the public schools lose—once again.

One curious offshoot of the SB1 battle is that Rauner may force Mayor Rahm Emanuel to alter the city's tax increment financing program. I'll try to keep the explanation brief.

The amount of state aid any school system receives is partly based on the worth of the property it has to tax. The more property a wealthy town such as Winnetka can tax, the less state aid it receives. This makes sense, right? You want state aid to go to the folks who need it the most.

Not included in the formula currently is property that's in a TIF district, which in Chicago means some of the hottest communities on the near south and west sides. So there's a perverse incentive for Chicago to create more TIF districts—a point I've been wailing about for years.

Rauner's proposing to change the law so the property in TIF districts is included in the school aid formula. That means less state aid for Chicago.

I'm torn on this issue. On the one hand, it's about time someone took a wrecking ball to the TIF scam. On the other hand, if it means less money for CPS, then once again the people hit the hardest are the low-income children of Chicago. The poorest people get the short end of the TIF stick even when the program's being "reformed."

When it comes to the current school funding morass, without state aid CPS will have to borrow even more money to pay basic bills. That means less money for the classrooms and more money in interest and other borrowing fees to Wall Street lenders. It's a path we've been following for the last decade or so.

During last week's protest in Winnetka, Hughes says she found among the governor's neighbors more than one sympathetic listener. "They told me they don't support what Rauner's doing," she says.

That's encouraging to hear. But I don't think North Shore residents have much incentive to change a system that works to their advantage. Just like last year.   v

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