More than any other state in the country, Illinois relies on property taxes to fund public schools. As a result, districts in prosperous areas can spend a lot more per student than districts in low-income or rural areas. A group of lawmakers charged with revamping this scheme has been meeting since summer, facing a Feb. 1st deadline. But the group isn’t moving fast enough for State Sen. Andy Manar. He’s the leading Democrat on the commission. He’s also considering running for governor.
“Flabbergasted” is the word Manar used to describe his reaction to the latest school funding commission meeting. That’s pretty strong language for the Democrat from Bunker Hill, who has sat through more education meetings -- and drafted more school funding legislation -- than most other members of the commission.
He wasn’t upset over anything the commission did; instead, he was upset about what it hasn’t done.
“When I walked into the first commission meeting, I was under the expectation that we were going to work toward a bill that will be filed before the deadline, which is February 1," Manar said after yesterday's meeting. "That’s what I heard Gov. Rauner charge the commission with doing.
"Then a couple of meetings ago, we had a very good discussion about what is the expectation of the commission. And we left that meeting with the understanding that the commission’s goal was to produce a framework, or a report, perhaps. Today what I heard was that perhaps when we get to that point, there will be more work to do after Feb. 1, that will require input from both legislative leaders and Gov. Rauner.
"So that, to me, is incredibly frustrating, because that is opening up the door for more delay in what is, I think, inevitable in the state. Without change, without this commission producing a bill that has both Republican and Democrat sponsors, we will further ensure that the least equitable system of funding in the country is going to be preserved in Illinois," Manar said. "So when I hear things like, ‘Well, our work’s going to continue after February 1,’ that makes me -- as a legislator and as a parent of three children who go to an underfunded public school -- incredibly frustrated. It makes me mad.”In the meeting, Manar had said, “The more we open the door to indecision, the less likely we’re going to have a reform measure passed this spring.” He continued the same argument afterwards.
“This isn’t an easy conversation to have," he said. "But the moment that we begin to back away from the difficult choice of working together as Republicans and Democrats, trying to find common ground, trying to say, 'Ya know what? We’re going to take this difficult step together,' then the closer we’re going to get to greater inequity and outcomes from our public schools that aren’t improving. So again, when I hear in the opening minutes of a commission meeting that we’ve gone from the expectation that we’re going to produce a bill to now we’re going to produce a report and continue our work after Feb. 1, I’m going to put my foot on the brakes and ask the questions: Why aren’t we coming to an agreement right now, so that we can have a bill that will put an end to the system that we have today in this state?”
One theory that been floated is that the House of Representatives is stalling because they don’t want to give the governor any kind of victory. Manar wouldn't endorse that idea.“I’m not into theories. Especially in this environment in Springfield, one could get lost in a quicksand of theories," he said. "Here’s what I know: What we ought not do at this moment is even begin to talk about what happens after Feb. 1. We should have our eye on the deadline of Feb. 1 with an agreement and a bill that can be supported by both Democrats and Republicans.”
What makes this issue so difficult is that nobody wants their school district to lose any money. So every school funding bill has to have its numbers run, to see how each district makes out. Manar has sponsored three such bills over the past few years; they’ve passed the Senate, but never the House of Representatives.
The commission is focused on a different concept, known as the Evidence-Based Model, pushed by the Illinois School Management Alliance and Republican Governor Bruce Rauner. Manar supports it too, but he’s anxious to see the actual legislation and a numbers run.
The Illinois State Board of Education has been crunching that data with the Management Alliance, but the results have not been made officially available to lawmakers on the commission.
Another popular theory, that dates back to Manar’s previous school funding bills, posited that Manar had made this his signature issue as a way to climb to higher office. His recent acknowledgment that he’s running for governor could feed into that notion.
“I would invite anyone who’s going down that path to take a walk through my kids’ school in Bunker Hill,” Manar said. “Or they could walk through a school in Harvey. They could walk through a school in East St. Louis. And anybody who comes up with a theory like that is plagued with politics. And again, if someone’s theory is about betterment of an individual -- myself or somebody else -- I would just invite them to walk through my children’s school.”
He’s spoken publicly before about the school’s art class, which is in a converted janitor’s closet.
“Talk to those teachers and understand that these challenges are real, they’re deep, they’re heavy, they get at the root of many things that are problematic for our state today, where we have a slim number of school districts that are going above and beyond everything and every expectation we ask of them, and then we have a whole host that are left behind," Manar said.
"I represent a lot of those that are left behind. I graduated from a school district that was left behind by the state of Illinois. Yet we ask those teachers in Bunker Hill and elsewhere to walk into a classroom every day and meet every expectation as one of their colleagues that’s paid twice as much as they are on the other side of the state or in a neighboring school district. So those are the things that are driving this conversation.
"So when these things get heated like they did today at the commission meeting, no matter which side of the fence you’re on, on this discussion, I think there has to be an understanding that far too many middle class families in Illinois are paying taxes, and their schools are failing, because both Republicans and Democrats in Springfield have failed to get this right for decade after decade.
"I’m not going to stop until this is completely finished and we have put an end to the least equitable system in the country. This commission is part of that and my hope, again, is that this commission is going to produce a very specific piece of legislation that both Republicans and Democrats can point to and say, 'Ya know what? That might not be everything that I asked for, but it’s a good change for every child in the state of Illinois.' I think we can still get that done.”