To twist a cliché, when Chicago sneezes, Illinois catches a cold.

Such could be the case with two Senate bills that attempt to change the outdated and imbalanced formula that determines how much state money goes to Illinois school districts.

The legislation has sparked something of a tug-of-war in Springfield. Supporters of the measures, Senate Bill 1 and Senate Bill 1124, say they guarantee that enough resources are given to every school district, regardless of where they are located.

But some critics see them as a bailout of Chicago Public Schools that faces a financial black hole and ballooning pension obligations.

In other words, it’s the vintage Chicago-versus-downstate narrative that thwarts so much of our state’s evolution.

But there is in-fighting among supporters of the bills, too.

Senate Bill 1, crafted by Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, would overhaul the current formula that under-funds districts and forces the use of local property taxes to cover about 60 percent of costs.  

The second bill, championed by Sen. Jason Barickman, R-Bloomington, is billed as the Capitol Compromise, a more fair and equitable funding formula for each of the state's 842 districts, based on evidence-supported data from the state Board of Education.

The details are complicated, but suffice to say both attempt to ensure that all students have the resources they need for a quality education.

Chicago’s sniffles are being heard far and wide, and they might wreck the whole thing. And that’s bad for a lot of schools that don't have a strong property tax base to draw from.

Here’s why: For school districts with high poverty rates, changing the school-funding formula is the clearest solution to making sure money is directed to students in a fair way.

One particularly divisive aspect of both bills is the state would pay a piece of the pension costs for Chicago school employees, which also happens for other districts.

Barickman says his bill would mean CPS netting about $119 million, including the pension payment and loss of most of its current block grant. Senate Bill 1, he argues, would give Chicago $418 million.

Regardless, the issue of Chicago unfairly benefiting is a valid one.  Gov. Rauner has termed the money going to CPS via Senate Bill 1, which has passed both chambers, as a bailout.

The idea of local taxpayers funding pension obligations rubs us the wrong way, too. Chicago schools recently borrowed more than $200 million to pay pensions costs, and the district has been hobbled by various financial missteps. 

Still, Chicago is part of the puzzle and needs to be part of the solution. While state taxpayers shouldn’t be on the hook, we also have a responsibility that all students, everywhere, have access to quality education. Our path forward as a state is driven in part by having a solid school foundation. 

All of this comes amid the backdrop of ongoing budget talks in advance of Friday's deadline and the start of a new fiscal year. School funding reform should be part of any budget deal and Barickman's bill should be part of any further talks related to school funding reform.

We hope the conversations — and, yes, maybe more compromise — continues in Springfield before time is up.


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