Political Fight Threatens Illinois Public School Funding

Aug 2, 2017
Originally published on August 2, 2017 6:42 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Illinois, the land of Lincoln, is having a little trouble making democracy work. Governor Bruce Rauner is in a fight with lawmakers over school funding. One potential consequence could be public schools failing to receive state money. From WBEZ in Chicago, Tony Arnold reports.

TONY ARNOLD, BYLINE: Governor Rauner says education is an issue that unifies Democrats and Republicans. And then on Tuesday, he vetoed a major bill that sets the funding formula for schools. Both parties actually agree that Illinois' current method of distributing money to schools is inequitable and has not properly funded low-income districts for decades. But Rauner blames Democrats for drafting a bill that bails out Chicago's schools and its underfunded pension system.

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BRUCE RAUNER: Some people in this building chose to politicize the issue and play partisan football with our kids' future.

ARNOLD: Rauner says he would redistribute the money to other school districts. Democrats accused Rauner of ginning up anger in rural and suburban parts of the state against Chicago, even though Chicago Public Schools has historically been underfunded. The fight has gotten nasty. Here's Democratic Senate President John Cullerton on why it took two months to even send the bill to Rauner.

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JOHN CULLERTON: Yeah, it's because of the mental state of the governor. It's been the fact that, as I said, he's really had a bad month.

ARNOLD: Cullerton is referring to the Democrat's two-year budget fight with Rauner. The political stalemate only ended last month, when 11 Republicans voted with Democrats for a budget that raises income taxes. After that, about 20 members of Rauner's administration were either fired or quit. The governor, who's up for re-election next year, replaced his top staff with members of a conservative advocacy group. Rauner recently said his new staff has not changed his views.

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RAUNER: And I've got Democrats in my administration. I've got Republicans. I've got the whole cross-spectrum. I don't care about partisanship, and nobody tells me what my policies are - nobody.

ARNOLD: Meantime, the question remains of how long schools can last before they can't afford to hold classes. Comptroller Susana Mendoza says it won't be long before schools run out of money.

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SUSANA MENDOZA: This will be a matter of months before we see a complete meltdown of our K-12 educational system here in the state of Illinois.

ARNOLD: During the two-year-long budget impasse, universities and social services had to dip into their reserves, lay off employees and borrow money just to keep the lights on. If there's no deal or if Democrats don't find the votes to override Rauner's veto, Illinois schools could be in for a similar fate. For NPR News, I'm Tony Arnold in Chicago.

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