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Ill. Lawmakers Duck Vow To Revamp Funding

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Despite more than a year of lawmakers' promises that the time for radical school funding reform had come, the Illinois legislature finished up its spring session having done nothing to change the state's property-tax-reliant method of paying for schools.

As the legislature adjourned in the wee hours of June 1, Gov. Jim Edgar's sweeping, $1.6 billion plan to shift the burden of paying for schools from local property owners to a statewide income tax expired.

"School kids have been forsaken," the Republican governor said after learning of the defeat of the most important piece of legislation he had proposed during his six years in office. "A golden opportunity has been missed, and it's truly a shame."

The current method of financing the education of the nearly 2 million students in the state's public schools allows per-pupil spending to range from less than $3,000 to nearly $16,000, depending largely on the property wealth of a given district, according to the state education department.

Gov. Edgar's plan would have provided $900 million in property-tax relief across the state. The loss would have been offset by a 25 percent increase in personal income taxes, from 3 percent to 3.75 percent, raising an estimated $1.6 billion for schools.

Of the new money raised, $614 million would have been used to bring low-wealth districts to a base level of funding of $4,225 per student; $100 million would have been earmarked for school construction and repairs; and $50 million would have provided a tax break for people who rent their homes and thus are ineligible for a property-tax break.

Despite GOP-led efforts to kill the measure, the House approved it--62-56--on May 29, and it appeared poised to pass the Senate. But Senate President James "Pate" Philip and other Republican leaders--who had denounced Gov. Edgar's plan as seeking the highest tax increase in state history--blocked the measure from advancing to a Senate vote by stalling it in committee.

Lawmakers instead approved a $34.6 billion state budget for next year that provides a small increase of roughly $250 million over last year's school portion, but does little to resolve the funding disparities between the state's rich and poor districts.

No New Taxes

Critics nationwide have long described Illinois' school funding formula as both inadequate and inequitable. But the state's courts have dismissed challenges to the funding mechanism, citing the legislature's--not the courts'--responsibility to revamp it.

But regionalism, partisan politics, and, above all, an aversion to bringing any new taxes to constituents have stalled legislative plans for change over the years.

This year had seemed different. Legislative leaders from Sen. Philip to Democratic House Speaker Michael J. Madigan said from the start of the session in January that school funding reform would be a top priority. And the governor has pounded the lectern for little else since January. ("Odds Seen Better for Funding Reform in Ill.," Feb. 5, 1997.)

Although they promoted the idea of changing the formula, Sen. Philip and other Republicans had indicated all along that they were averse to any change that included a major tax hike.

Late in the spring session, Mr. Philip introduced a school funding proposal that would have held the line on income taxes, but provided a $450 million boost for schools through state revenue growth and new cigarette and phone taxes.

That bill, which his spokeswoman, Patty Schuh, described as "a more reasonable proposal" than Gov. Edgar's, passed on a party-line vote in the GOP-controlled Senate May 30, but was killed later in a House committee.

Mr. Edgar said he was "extremely disappointed" in the outcome. "One man [Sen. Philip]--aided by the submissiveness of some senators whose constituents would have benefited tremendously--blocked the school funding reform that the people of Illinois have ... wanted for three decades," he said in a statement.

School groups and education officials were equally stunned.

Robert Haisman, the head of the Illinois Education Association, the state's largest teachers' union, said the legislature's failure to pass the funding bill was "child neglect of the worst kind."

Peter Weber, the deputy executive director for the Illinois Association of School Boards, said the just-ended session was "the first time in years, there was an opportunity to fix the problem."

Paul G. Vallas, the chief executive officer of the Chicago public schools, said the bill's failure would have a serious impact on city schools. "We will have to scale back on plans to expand programs that improve academic performance, and we will need to reduce personnel," he said.

Proponents of school funding reform are not confident that Gov. Edgar's plan, or anything like it, will have the opportunity to pass for some time. Lawmakers will be especially careful to avoid tax increases as the 1998 elections near.

"This can serve as a case-study example of the politics of education and the problems that arise when education becomes so much part of the political process that we lose focus on what's most important--kids," said Larry McNeal, an assistant professor of education finance at the University of Illinois in Normal.

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