Last week, the School Funding Reform Commission wrapped up six months of work trying to fix the state's notoriously inequitable support structure for public schools by producing a report calling for new dollars to go first to school districts that have been historically underfunded. However, the commission stopped short of proposing its own legislation. Sen. Andy Manar, a Democrat from Bunker Hill who has already proposed three school funding reform packages, is calling on Gov. Bruce Rauner's administration to come up with a piece of legislation that would carry out the concepts endorsed in the commission's report.
Manar: Let’s be honest. This commission was a commission about the Evidence-Based Model. Which is fine, you know, I’m co-sponsor of the bill in the Senate. But the commission really didn’t sift through anything other than what that model provides and what it accounts for. If you go back to the meeting this week on Monday, we commissioners got for the first time a look at some of the outcomes in terms of real numbers, of what a draft of that model would produce, and you know, I walked away from that meeting with many, many concerns about what was lacking in that proposal. That’s not a criticism of the effort for the proposal on my part. It’s not at all. I have great respect for anyone and everyone who’s taken part in this conversation, but I left that meeting with dozens of questions and I think many others did as well.
So I think it was a good move on the part of the commission not to be specific about one model or another, or one bill or another, and I think that’s a strength of the report. The report clearly says we have to get rid of the current system and we have to go to a system that prioritizes money for high-poverty districts, regardless of where they are in Illinois. That is a sizeable change in state policy if we can get it enacted.
Reporter: Well, that’s what I wanted to ask you. You’ve been talking about this issue for years. In what ways did this commission significantly advance the ball?
Manar: First I want to note that it wasn’t just me -- there were many before I arrived. Rev. (James) Meeks, who chairs the State Board of Education, champion on the issue. Go all the way back to Dawn Clark Netsch, who advanced a very similar proposal in the 1990s. Here we are in 2017 having the same arguments that Dawn Clark Netsch and Sen. Art Berman and Sen. Vince Demuzio and countless other legislators had, you know, almost three decades ago.
So the strength of the report is this: It’s bipartisan, it’s bicameral, it’s very specific, leading the reader -- if you read it -- to determine that there is a policy doctrine on the part of the legislators that met in this commission, including Gov. Rauner, that we have to change the system and prioritize money for students that live in poverty. And that’s the first time that we’ve had agreement in a bipartisan setting to make a policy statement like that. I think that is progress. But the true measure of progress will be whether or not this report turns into a bill that’s going to change this inequitable construct of school funding in Illinois. That’s going to be the true measure of success or failure.
Reporter: Okay, so there’s this “grand bargain” that’s out there -- may happen, may not -- is there a school funding bill that’s being written that’s going to be filed next week by you or someone else?
Manar: I think there could be. You know part of that grand bargain in the Senate that is pending, and still has some work to do on it, includes school funding. You know, Senate Bill 1, sponsored by Senate Pres. Cullerton, is a school funding reform act, and it is tied to those other bills. It is a piece of that grand bargain. Right now that bill is completely blank. Part of the reason it’s blank is because I advocated to my leadership in the Senate and to my colleagues that we should let the commission finish its work. Despite the fact that I want to move as quickly as possible, I felt it was necessary. The commission did finish, and the commission has a report. And I think that report should be the basis of any bill, whether it’s Senate Bill 1 or any other bill in the future in the House or the Senate. That’s a good place to start.
Reporter: Okay but I’m saying do you know of one being crafted? Because Sen. Kimberly Lightford (D-Maywood) had her own process that was happening on a parallel track; you’ve certainly got probably a lot of language already ready, and the School Management Alliance likewise.
Manar: I think all of those things are happening. And that’s a good thing. The more proposals that are in the public domain for debate, the better, in my book. And I think the report will help guide the legislator and the governor to a conclusion, if the desire is there to get it done. I think the next logical step following the commission’s work is for the Rauner administration to take the lead on drafting a bill. They took the lead on the commission, and Dr. Purvis did a good job. I think that should continue. And the administration is best-equipped to draft legislation of this size and magnitude.
Can the caucuses do it? Of course. We’ve proven we can do that twice in the Senate in the last three years, and we’re going to continue to move forward, one way or the other. But I think taking this report and drafting it into an actual bill should be done by the Rauner administration and then filed in both chambers so we can have a healthy debate and then build a bipartisan coalition to pass it and get it signed into law.
Reporter: One thing I noticed was that every time the commission kind of got rolling along and felt like everybody was on the same page, someone would point out that the wealthy districts are not going to get as much money. It just kept coming up. How is that ever going to change? Those are people who’ve been sitting in that room listening to evidence and numbers for months. How is that going to change when you get out into the General Assembly?
Manar: I think it changed sizably during this commission. But there was a propensity to gravitate toward having a discussion about how to politically pass a bill rather than how do we focus on inequity exclusively. And that brings into the conversation how do we lessen the impact on the “losers” -- as it was put multiple times in the commission hearing -- but there was never the framing of what does it mean if a school district that spends $29,000 per student, while most of my districts spend about $7,000 -- what does it mean if they lose $100 or $500? They go from $29,000 to $28,500. We spent a lot of time talking about that, and not as much time talking about how do we get those kids that have $7,000 a year spent on them up so that they can compete in the world and we can break that cycle of poverty.
We have to focus on inequity -- period -- in Illinois. It’s not getting better. It’s getting worse. And whether or not we’re going to address that is now before us again, backed up by a bipartisan report that was approved unanimously by both the House and the Senate, Democrats and Republicans, and Gov. Rauner. So we have an opportunity here to get this done.