Quick Hit Ellyn Fortino Monday January 25th, 2016, 5:26pm

Cullerton Says School Funding Overhaul Should Be Tied To Budget

Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago) said he wants school funding reform tied to the state budgeting process. 

"The governor has linked things together. We don't have a budget because he's got his 'turnaround agenda.' So I can link things together too," Cullerton said during remarks Monday at the City Club of Chicago. "This is a turnaround agenda. We gotta change the school funding formula."

During his City Club speech, Cullerton said a school funding overhaul is needed because the current system is the "most inequitable system of school finance in the country." The state's public education funding system has remained unchanged since 1997. 

"Before we appropriate money for education for next year, (which) starts July 1, we have to fix this formula," Cullerton said. "And it's not a special deal for Chicago. In fact, we're eliminating the special deals for Chicago," including the special block grant it receives. 

The Senate president spoke about the state's school funding formula as the Chicago Public Schools grapples with a $480 million budget hole this year. In an effort to help close the budget gap, CPS laid off 227 administrative staffers on Friday. 

In light of the financial woes at CPS, last week Republican leaders said they might introduce a plan to let the nation's third largest school district declare bankruptcy, an idea Cullerton shot down during his speech today.

"Today, I think I made it really clear, part of the budget is going to be funding our school system in a fairer way than we've been doing it," Cullerton told reporters. "We're not gonna hold Chicago hostage. We're not going to make Chicago schools go bankrupt. We're gonna fix Chicago's funding formula by fixing the entire state's funding formula." 

Cullerton said a school funding overhaul should meet a set of principles. Those principles, according to a news release, include:

State resources should go to school districts based on the needs of students, with more funds to support children who need extra support - those who live in poverty, have special learning needs and who are English language learners.

There should be a single, straightforward funding model and no more special deals for some districts.

The formula must account for a district's ability to support local schools with local dollars, and accountability must follow those dollars.

Any revamp of the school funding formula should also include "pension parity" for CPS, Cullerton said. Currently, the state pays the employer costs for teacher pensions in all school districts in Illinois except CPS.

The proposal outlined by Cullerton could help CPS address a portion of its budget gap, he said. 

"The funding formula, if it's made more equitable and if there's pension parity, Chicago will get hundreds of millions more dollars than they're getting now, because this formula is unfair and not having pension parity is unfair," Cullerton said. "Whether it's enough to avoid the layoffs and how else they manage their system is up to them. But this is the most important thing we can do, to me, when it comes to education funding."

Cullerton penned a guest post Sunday in the State Journal-Register further detailing why the state needs school funding reform.

Gov. Bruce Rauner's office declined to comment in response to Cullerton's City Club speech. Messages seeking comment were left with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel's office and the Chicago Teachers Union.

House Minority Leader Jim Durkin (R-Western Springs) issued a response after Cullerton's speech. 

"As a suburban legislator, I remain open to working with the Democrats to fix our archaic school funding formula," Durkin said. "At the same time, I hope this means Democratic leadership is now ready to work with us on other structural reforms to put Illinoisans back to work and to bring the budget impasse to a close."

Cullerton, meanwhile, told reporters Monday that he and Rauner are seeking to get on the same page regarding pension reform.

Cullerton said he and Rauner spoke Monday about a pension plan based on the Senate president's "consideration" model. 

"I talked to the governor today," Cullerton said. "We're gonna make sure that we're on the same page" and "get a bill drafted to make sure that we both understand what's in it. And I think that we have an agreement.

"There's some tweaks to be made by the lawyers, and then the question's gonna be, how do we pass it?" Cullerton continued. "And we'll work together with Senator Radogno. All these pension bills in the past that have passed, they're very bipartisan and controversial. So we expect that the unions will probably not be supportive so (that's going to) make it more difficult to pass, but we're gonna be on the same page."

The Senate president's comments come after Rauner's bungled press conference last Thursday, during which he announced he and Cullerton had struck a pension reform deal that involved removing wages from the collective bargaining process. Cullerton, however, quickly rebuked claims of an agreement, saying the plan Rauner detailed at his press conference went "beyond what we discussed and beyond what I support."

Cullerton told reporters Monday that he and Rauner spoke earlier in the day about a pension reform plan that does not take salary negotiations out of the collective bargaining process.

"That was never part of the deal," Cullerton stressed.

Cullerton went on to say that he is "very glad the governor has basically changed his mind on a more aggressive, unconstitutional pension plan and has agreed to go with the one which we think is constitutional." 

The legislative leader also weighed in on the state budget impasse, now in its seventh month. At the center of the impasse is Rauner's attempt to use the budgeting process to win items on his pro-business, anti-union "turnaround agenda." 

Cullerton said he and House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) are willing to work with the governor to reach a budget agreement. 

Democratic legislative leaders, Cullerton said, are open to some of Rauner's turnaround agenda topics, including collective bargaining and workers' compensation. Democrats, Cullerton said, are willing to consider making "some changes, but not dramatic, radical changes, especially when there's a supermajority of Democrats."

Regarding a potential tax hike to tackle the state's budget, Cullerton said no such increase will happen unless it has support from the governor. 

"And if he agrees to it, the amount of the increase is gonna be up to him," Cullerton said. "So that requires compromise. We can't do it by ourselves. And so that's why we need to sit down and work on the budget. If he needs to have some changes to workers' comp and to collective bargaining, we've agreed that we will talk to him about those topics, but not the radical changes that he's proposed." 

UPDATE (5:51 p.m.): The Illinois Federation of Teachers responded to Cullerton's speech in a news update on its website:

At an address to the City Club of Chicago earlier today, Senate President John Cullerton discussed changing the state's school funding formula. He spoke generally about a proposal that would shift money to the state's neediest districts and students, though did not provide many specifics. We expect legislation is forthcoming. 

There is no question that the current system is not working. There are too many schools in need of resources in a system overly reliant on property taxes. Our union welcomes the opportunity to work with lawmakers to ensure that state funding for education is not only equitable, but adequate, for students and communities across Illinois. 

 

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