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'Grand bargain' on Illinois budget could be key to school funding reform, lawmakers say

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Illinois Democrats, GOP remain far apart in budget talks

Illinois Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, speaks to lawmakers and staffers while on the Senate floor in November during veto session at the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield.

SPRINGFIELD — The first bill introduced in the Illinois Senate during the new session of the General Assembly that began Wednesday is reserved for a long-awaited overhaul of the way the state funds public schools.

But a plan hasn’t been unveiled yet because a commission that Gov. Bruce Rauner convened this summer is still working out specifics.

With the commission’s Feb. 1 deadline roughly two weeks away, a draft report issued last week shows there are several items on which lawmakers of both parties and both legislative chambers have yet to reach a consensus. Among those issues is how to define what constitutes adequate funding for each school district across the state.

Despite the remaining work, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are hopeful that an overhaul of Illinois’ education funding formula can be part of a “grand bargain” on the state budget and other issues.

A bipartisan package of bills that includes tax increases, spending cuts, new casino licenses and a host of other issues has been introduced in the Senate, and committee hearings are expected to begin as soon as next week on some portions. The effort has the backing of both Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, and Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno, R-Lemont.

“The most important piece of that package, to me, is school funding reform,” state Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, said Monday.

Manar, who’s been working on the issue since arriving in the Senate in 2013, said the commission has brought lawmakers from both parties and both legislative chambers together with Rauner administration officials for a productive conversation.

“I don’t think we’ve unearthed an easier way to accomplish school funding reform in Illinois,” he said. “I think it’s as difficult today as it ever has been since we started this conversation.”

Previous reform efforts have faltered due to the political difficulties of passing legislation that would either shift money from wealthier school districts to poorer ones or result in a large increase in state spending. The issue often breaks down along both partisan and regional lines.

Given those challenges, tying school funding to the larger discussion of a budget compromise could be essential to passing legislation, said state Sen. Jason Barickman, R-Bloomington, who’s been a leader for his caucus on the issue.

“If ever there was a time to address it, the time would be now in the context of us coming together in a bipartisan manner on all these other host of issues,” Barickman said. “This one’s so difficult in any normal context that I think it’s critical to incorporate into this larger effort.”

The overall goal of funding reform is to direct more state money to school districts with the greatest need while also accounting for each district’s individual characteristics, such as the number of special education students and students from low-income households.

Illinois’ current system, which relies heavily on local property taxes, is among the worst in the nation at providing equitable funding for wealthy and poor school districts.

Manar and Barickman are both optimistic that the Senate can find a bipartisan approach to solving that problem.

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