News Local/State

School Funding Battle Boils Down To CPS. Again.

Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, speaks to lawmakers and staffers while on the Senate floor during veto session at the Illinois State Capitol.

In this file photo, Illinois Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, speaks to lawmakers and staffers while on the Senate floor during veto session at the Illinois State Capitol Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2016, in Springfield, Ill. Seth Perlman/AP

The fate of school funding reform in Illinois hinges on downstate sentiment about Chicago Public Schools, and legislators' grasp of a complex, new formula.

The governor has already pledged to veto the legislation. And now, the battle has State Sen. Andy Manar accusing Education Secretary Beth Purvis of lying.

On the final day of the legislative session, Illinois Democrats, along with one Republican, approved a massive overhaul to the way the state funds schools. It's called Senate Bill 1 — and that title alone indicates how important it is to their party. The House version of the bill was carried by Rep. Will Davis, of Homewood, while the senate version was sponsored by Andy Manar, from Bunker Hill, sponsored the legislation.

“This is a monumental, landmark piece of legislation,” Manar says, “because it’s done at a time when partisanship has never been as high as it is today in Springfield — both in terms of inaction on so many things, in terms of the budget impasse, how Democrats and Republicans just can’t seem to resolve their problems — Democrats came together and took decisive action on this issue.

“By every account, we’re the worst in the country or, you know, 49th by some measurements. This will put us at the front of the pack for progressive funding for schools. Kids that are surrounded by poverty every day of their lives — they will see the impact of this legislation every day in their classroom, and it will undoubtedly change the entire construct of school funding in Illinois.

“And we’re at the point now where we’re just one signature away from making this the law of the state of Illinois.”

That one signature is not going to come easily. Gov. Bruce Rauner, a Republican, has promised to veto the plan.

“The governor, I think, agrees with 90 percent of what’s in this bill. Most rational people would call that a win,” Manar says. “Most rational people would say, ‘I got 90 percent of what I want, and I’m going to declare victory.’ “

The part the governor disagrees about is what amount should go to Chicago Public Schools — the district that educates almost a quarter of all students in the state. CPS gets a block grant that nets the district about 250 million dollars more than it deserves. However, CPS also pays its own teacher and administrator pensions — and it's the only district in Illinois to do so. The normal costs, alone, are almost equal to that block grant gift. But just like Teachers Retirement System, the pension plan for the rest of the state, Chicago has a backlog of unfunded liability. Both of those tabs keep rising.

Rauner and other Republicans seem willing to pick up Chicago's normal teacher pension costs. But when it comes to the the block grant and giving CPS credit for its legacy pension debt, they call that a "Chicago bailout."

“Let’s be honest. This is less about the substance of the bill, at this point,” Manar says, “and it’s more about political rhetoric and ginning up people around downstate Illinois on a very complicated issue, and making it overly simplistic, which doesn’t serve the issue well at all. As you know very well, and as most of your listeners know, this is an incredibly complicated issue.”

Complicated? That's an understatement.

But here's one basic fact: No school district would lose money under Senate Bill 1. Every district would get to keep the amount of state aid it currently receives. Manar has long said that's why he kept the Chicago block grant in the bill. I think it's important to note here that no one has accused CPS of mismanaging this extra money. In fact, Rauner's education czar, Beth Purvis, has stated many times that CPS pours all that money into educating children.

So if everybody gets to keep their money, what's the problem?

Fliers like this one are being distributed downstate by lawmakers who oppose the school funding reform plan that passed both chambers of the General Assembly. The numbers cited weren't generated by a state agency, and the governor's office denies any knowledge of these fliers.

Photo Credit: Dusty Rhodes/NPR Illinois

Republicans have targeted Senate Bill 1 with a publicity campaign, using press releases and social media to distribute charts with three columns.

“I’ve seen, I think, close to a dozen different comparisons, side-by-side, to something else that is trying to be portrayed as better. That’s the best way I can describe it.”

The middle column shows the dollar amount districts would gain under Senate Bill 1.

The left hand column shows the amount districts would gain ​under something called "Our Plan" — which is not an actual piece of legislation, but rather Senate Bill 1 stripped of the Chicago block grant and the credit CPS would get for paying its legacy pension costs.

The final column is all in red, under the heading “Money Lost To Chicago.”

“By the way: None of these comparisons include a column for the status quo,” Manar says.

Of course, any plan would require the legislature to pass a budget. But school funding has always been seen as a cornerstone of those negotiations. If Democrats can persuade seven Republican representatives to vote for Senate Bill 1, they can override the governor's promised veto. But Manar isn't focused on that yet.

“What we’re focused on today is pushing back on the deliberate misinformation campaign that’s been waged by Bruce Rauner and his allies, and his secretary of education (Beth Purvis), who’s highly paid and using her time to lie about what this bill is, and what this bill isn’t,” Manar says.

Manar and Purvis have had a cordial relationship in the past, so it’s startling to hear him use such strong language. I asked him to give a specific example of Purvis telling a lie.

“Sure,” he says. “I’ve heard the secretary of education say several times that Chicago’s going to get both a $215 million payment for their normal cost of pensions, as well as a $250 million payment through the block grant. Well, that’s not true. We eliminate the block grant. But we also put at the highest priority the issue that no district should lose money, so the value of that block grant is preserved in the base funding, just like all of the good and bad in the current system is inked in that base funding amount for each district.

“Also, she doesn’t mention that the Teachers Retirement System, which impacts every school district but Chicago, is going to receive a $600 million increase this year.

“What is the motive of that?” Manar asks. “Why is she pitting children in one part of the state against children in another part of the state? Why is the governor’s office doing that?”

In this Feb. 18, 2016 file photo, Beth Purvis, Illinois State Secretary of Education, smiles at Riverton Middle School in Riverton, Ill.

Photo Credit: Seth Perlman/AP

I contacted Purvis this morning. She said she's disappointed that Manar has resorted to name-calling, and stands by her statement about the block grant and the pension costs. But she seemed surprised to hear about press releases and the social media campaign with numbers written in red. Purvis says neither she nor the governor's office have distributed any material matching that description.

Meanwhile, Manar is hoping that the governor who's so interested in education that he already has his name on a Chicago charter school will decide to put his name on this bill.

“You know, this issue’s eluded his predecessors,” Manar says. “They never had the ability to sign a school funding reform bill. But Gov. Rauner has the ability to actually sign a bill, and to check a pretty big box on what he says is his to-do list. That’s a win. The governor needs a win desperately. And this is a big one.”