For the past 20 years, school funding in Illinois has relied heavily on property taxes, which means schools near prime commercial or residential areas thrive, while others struggle to get by. Since August, a bi-partisan, bi-cameral group of lawmakers has been meeting regularly to try to come up with a better way to fund public schools.
Last week, after four days of legislative sessions ended, most of the 20 lawmakers appointed to the Illinois School Funding Reform Commission hung around Springfield just for this meeting. It took place in a stuffy teleconference room, and lasted three solid hours, with no breaks.
But even after the meeting adjourned, Senators Karen McConnaughay and Andy Manar lingered, continuing their discussion. She’s a Republican representing several upscale suburbs of Chicago; he’s a Democrat from the tiny town of Bunker Hill. Could this be a sign that on this issue, lawmakers from different worlds are trying to pull together?
McConnaughay says yes, and she claims this group feels more unified than other ed funding committee she served on before.
"Oh this is very different. This is a commission formed by the governor, with the collaboration and cooperation of all four (legislative) leaders -- something that we don’t get every day around here. That just sets a different tone of seriousness, to start with.
"Second thing that makes this different is Secretary Beth Purvis. She has been so instrumental in really going about this in a way where everybody had a voice, every outside expert has had their moment, you know. Anybody who’s been attending these meetings knows: If you’ve got an idea, you’ve got a perspective, you’ve had your opportunity to talk here.
"And third, by that process, it has created an environment where people who usually talk at each other, start talking to each other. And to solve these kinds of problems, you’ve gotta build trust -- in a body of people who are trying to legislate when they don’t trust each other at all. So we had a lot going against us, but the way that this was put together was the right sort of setting of the table so to speak to really start to get to the core issues.”
So did it get this gnarly on the previous commission?
“You know, a little bit but not to this extent. I mean, this is, as they say, we’re really in the weeds -- as you know. I mean, we spend a lot of time on minute details. But that’s also because the people who are here are here because they have demonstrated a legitimate interest in fixing the problem. People say: Well what exactly is the problem? The problem is that some kids have every resource possible to get a quality education, and other kids are in school districts where the available funds make it almost impossible for them to get a quality education.”
Tell me about your district.
“For the most part, I represent the suburbs in Kane and McHenry County. They are communities that experienced very fast growth, in the last 20 years. They were in the top 50 fastest growing counties in the entire country. And during that period of time, we were adding tens of thousands of kids every year in the schools.
"So there were lots of referendums that were passed. And through those referendums, we built a lot of schools and a lot of capital investment to make sure we had the resources and we hired a lot more teachers. And now those same communities that have kind of plateaued, they’re not even in the top 50, they’re in the top 20 highest property tax communities in the country. And what that means is that property taxes -- which is predominantly to pay for education -- are so high that it’s taxing the middle class right out of their homes.
"And at the same time, we’re spending sometimes two and three times what other schools are spending on educating their kids. So we have to resolve that. Do we want to spend that? Can we afford to spend that? And is that fair to other parts of the state?"
Have you had any light-bulb moments? Has there been anything that you understand now that you didn’t understand before?
"I think that most people here have had a number of light-bulb moments. Illinois is a very diverse state. You don’t always understand what somebody else is going through until you sit down and take the time to listen to what their challenges are. I look at this and see two or three legislators here who represent the southern suburbs, where they have high unemployment, they have a hard time attracting industry to locate in their communities which would help with their tax base, which would help create jobs.
"You know, those are problems that we don’t think about in my district. Right? And it’s important that if I’m going to be part of the solution, that I understand those problems just as well.
"And I’ll give you another example: For the most part, kids in my district -- not every school district but most of them -- there’s a laptop on every desk. And there are a lot of school districts in this state where an entire elementary school might have two or three computers for the entire school to share. I mean, it’s a very graphic example of the inequities that go on in the state of Illinois."
What do you think is going to be the final product of the commission? A framework, a bill, or something else?
"I think we’ll come out with a framework, but I also think that, because there’s a desire in the General Assembly to get a budget… I’m in the Senate, where there’s been a lot of signaling going on in the last couple of weeks that we’re ready to get to a solution and engage in legitimate give and take. Our leader, Christine Radogno (R-Lemont) and Senate President John Cullerton have emerged with a framework of a global deal, of which education is a piece…"
It’s Senate Bill 1…
"Right! Yeah! Exactly! So they have asked us to work towards a compromise position with our colleagues on the other side of the aisle. We’re not posturing, and everybody’s trying to make sure that they don’t send a signal that they’re unwilling to work towards the center. No one here is going to end up here with, ‘Well, I was right all along.’ Everybody’s going to have to give up some of … and it’s hard! In human nature, people don’t like to do that. None of us do. We want to be right, and we want everybody else to think that our idea was the best. And that’s just not going to happen here. I mean, I definitely get the feeling that there is this desire to find solutions that everybody can live with. I don’t know if we’ll get there, but I think that there’s been that change in tone over the last few weeks.
"You know, somebody had made a joke yesterday that I thought was hilarious. It was like, 'Oh wow, all the kumbaya in the Senate, I swear I thought you were all braiding each other's hair.' "
"I don’t think actually means that we’ve all given up on our values and our principles. It doesn’t mean that at all. I just think that We all love this state, we all want to do the right thing, and we just are tired. We're tired of the impasse. We're tired of going home and trying to explain why a group of adults cannot work out their differences. We know we’ve got to make difficult decisions, and I think we’ve finally come together and said we’ll make those tough decisions."