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Beware sound-bite logic on education, pensions

 

Spoiler Alert 1: Today’s editorial again falls under the heading “Keep an eye on your wallet; the General Assembly is in session.”

Spoiler Alert 2: Because the General Assembly has made so little progress, we are still on the state’s pension debt crisis, which is approaching $100 billion.

The recent development is a report prepared by GOP staff that addresses Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan’s claim that downstate schools “get a free lunch” on state funding.

Madigan and others have made the statement while defending the idea suburban and downstate school districts have to start paying into teacher pensions to address the state’s backlog. They note Chicago’s public system covers most its pension payments while the state provides millions for suburban and downstate district payments.

State Sen. Dave Luechtefeld, R-Owakaville, essentially warns “not so fast and beware of oversimplifications.”

For instance, he noted:

l Chicago public schools count for about 18 percent of the statewide average daily attendance.

l Chicago Public School District gets 27 percent of the personal property replacement tax revenue distribution, 35 percent of the state’s special education funding, 37 percent of early childhood education funding, and 49 percent of PTELL Grant Funding, which aids counties that have a cap placed on real estate tax percentages.

The senator’s comments echo those from March, when Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno said “Even if the Chicago Public School system bears a slightly higher burden for teacher pension payments, this is offset many times over by other components of school funding.”

The Republican leader said “the state has been ‘super-sizing’ their (Chicago schools) lunch — to the tune of $772 million additional funding they receive each year through special considerations and grant lines.” Comparable downstate funding is about $104 million, the GOP says.

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Luechtefeld, a former teacher and coach, says he doesn’t want education spending wars. Instead he says his mission is “to put to rest a distracting and misleading argument that threatens to derail the already difficult challenge of finding a solution to the state’s massive underfunding of our teacher retirement system.”

Bottom line, he says, “We cannot build a base of support for public education with an “equalization formula” that is taking Illinois down a path of increasingly unequal treatment of our students.”

Before any talk of cost shifts or free lunches, the Republican senator argues, “The facts make it clear. Illinois needs an open, honest and thorough debate over how education resources are allocated.”

We agree. The public is owed more than sound bites that will play well each November. Luechtefeld’s efforts to draw attention to the realities of education funding need support from his Southern Illinois legislative colleagues and other downstate lawmakers. Madigan made a lot of noise with his “free lunch” accusation, but not enough to hide the shaky supporting facts.

 

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