This editorial ran in the Sept. 5, 2017, edition of The (Champaign) News-Gazette.
What's fair for one — the Chicago school district — should be fair for all — the rest of the school districts in Illinois' 102 counties.
There's a lot to dislike in the new compromise K-12 education financial formula law that passed with overwhelmingly bipartisan support and was signed into law last week by Gov. Bruce Rauner.
That's why the groundbreaking legislation — one that adopts an evidence-based model that ensures lower-income schools get increased state aid — was described as compromise legislation. Getting something required giving something.
But now many of those people who lambasted Gov. Rauner for not compromising and signing the Democratic version of Senate Bill 1 now are angry that a real compromise version of the legislation was passed by legislators and signed into law.
The most bitter comments have come from critics of the private school scholarship tax credit, the provision that allow donors to underwrite scholarships that will be used to help low-income children to attend private schools. The teachers' unions have been nothing less than vitriolic in their condemnation of the program that lets poor children escape failing public schools and get a better education in private schools.
But there are other grounds for complaints as well, including provisions allowing mandate relief in K-12 schools outside of Cook County.
There are few things, in general, that local officials resent more than unfunded mandates the Legislature places on local governments. Local officials have long argued that the state should pay for those programs it requires or leave local officials alone.
But legislators, as is their habit, often appease interests groups by granting mandate requests they know the state won't have to pay for.
It's a no-win game for local officials. They can't stop mandates from being imposed from above and, at the same time, are unable to avoid the requirement to pay for them out of their limited funds.
That's why it was good news that the K-12 school funding reform bill provides some mandate relief, although not nearly enough.
K-12 schools outside Chicago should not rest until they obtain the same kind of mandate relief Chicago schools have long enjoyed. That, of course, is a non-starter with Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan, who knows his labor union donors support mandates that push extra costs on school districts. That kind of politicized thinking ignores the reality that school districts exist to serve children's educational needs, not provide jobs that needlessly divert scarce financial resources away from education. That they provide many jobs is inevitable — and certainly welcome — but incidental to the core mission of the public schools.
But whatever mandate relief is forthcoming is welcome nonetheless.
Included in the legislation is a waiver that allows school districts to contract with a third party offering driver's education services without seeking permission from the state. The legislation also implements what it calls a "streamlined waiver process" by which local schools can ask to be excused from specific mandates. Taxpayers will have to wait to see how well that process works.
Most controversial is a provision that allows local school districts to reduce physical education requirements to a "minimum of three days a week." It also allows schools to exempt seventh- through 12-graders from PE if they participate in athletics. The old rule extended only to 11th- and 12th-graders. It also removes a six-year limitation on the number of years a school district may have a PE mandate waver.
The American Heart Association, not without cause, objects to the PE waiver on the grounds that it will have "a detrimental impact on our children."
And here's one more thing for legislators to consider — if schools could save money by modifying or limiting the unfunded mandates the new education bill left out of reach, they would have more money to focus on education, including physical education. That's another good reason why non-Chicago school districts should operate under the same mandate-relief umbrella that the Chicago schools do.