WIUM Tristates Public Radio

More Dollars Add Up to Less Trust

Feb 12, 2018

Last August, when Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner signed the historic school funding reform plan, the celebration was like the political version of a wedding. Lawmakers from both parties got dressed up, made lovely speeches, and posed for pictures next to that one cousin they never really liked.

Tony Smith was sort of the groomsman who hung around in the background at that soiree. As state superintendent of schools, he’s leader of the agency charged with implementing the new law. But he had been assigned only minimal duties on the bipartisan, bicameral commission Rauner created to work out a school funding fix. Instead, the governor put his education czar, Beth Purvis, in charge of that group. Once the bill was signed, she quickly left the state.

Now that it’s time to actually implement the funding reform, the honeymoon is over. The governor and lawmakers have moved on to squabbling over everything from the credit card balance to who forgot to put the lid on the toothpaste.

Smith seems to be caught in the middle. As leader of the Illinois State Board of Education (known as ISBE), he serves at the pleasure of its members. They were all appointed by Rauner — a Republican. But at last week’s Senate education committee, which had summoned Smith to answer questions about the new law, the friction between Smith and Republican lawmakers was impossible to miss.

Take, for example, this testy exchange with Sen. Jason Barickman (R- Bloomington), after Smith tried to explain what he called a “Scrivener’s error” in the bill.

Barickman: This dialog here is what I think has caused some lack of confidence in the work product that’s coming out of ISBE.

Smith: By whom?

Barickman: By lots of people all over the state.

Smith: “Lots” is a generalization. Specifics?

Barickman: You want me to send you a list?

Smith: Yeah. I mean, you’re quoted in the paper as saying we should stay out of the politics. We’ve only only stayed in the law, and in the language and in our role…

Barickman: You just disputed that.

Smith: No….

Both men talk at once

Barickman: Look, Dr. Smith, with all due respect…

Smith: Which generally means I don’t respect you, but okay…

Barickman: (pauses and chuckles) I’ve not heard that…

That exchange was ostensibly about five little words (ISBE says it needs to replace the term “normal curve equivalent” with the words “cumulative distribution,” on pages 421 and 422 of the new school funding law to make it match the calculations used to produce the spreadsheets lawmakers based their votes on to approve the law).

But that’s just one of the tweaks that Smith’s agency wants to make to the massive 550-page law. What Republicans  say they’re upset about is the board’s complete list of changes — about 20 in all.

A couple of those — funds for preschoolers who need to learn English, and a clarification regarding charter schools — could shift real dollars. A couple of others are as simple as pinpointing dates to collect school enrollment data.

And those tweaks aren’t the only issue. In January, as the spring session began, this same committee approved two other bills related to school funding — one requiring legislative review for some mandate relief, the other linking private school tax credits to appropriations for the new school funding formula. The party-line votes prompted Sen. Chuck Weaver (R-Peoria), to warn that future negotiations could be in jeopardy.

“Two of the things we really negotiated just got cut today. So (you’re) part of a minority, you work work work work work to come to a conclusion you agree on. As soon as we get back together, two of the things we agreed on are gone,” Weaver said. “It’s pretty tough to negotiate in the future under those circumstances, where the agreements are taken away by the majority immediately after they’re agreed on.”

Jennifer Bertino-Tarrant (D-Shorewood) sponsored those two bills, and she disagreed with Weaver, saying the change in waiver procedure applies only to a small number of items, and the private school scholarship program will remain as long as donors are in it for the right reasons.  

“The tax-credit scholarship program is still in place,” she said. “If the motivation for people who are donating is purely financial, then in five years, it’s going to be gone regardless.”

The distrust flows both ways. Democrats have not forgotten that Rauner not only vetoed the original bipartisan reform bill, but tried to amend it in a way that would have hurt hundreds of downstate school districts. He tried a similarly unexpected use of his amendatory veto powers on SB 444, a small trailer bill necessary to correct a crucial phrase in the school funding measure. He did so with Republican senators’ support: 11 voted against 444; 17 voted to uphold Rauner’s veto. Sen. Andy Manar (D-Bunker Hill) reminded Weaver of those facts.

“We had a bill on the floor of the Senate that — its only purpose was to implement the law that the governor signed, and immediately, that became a divisive debate for no reason whatsoever,” Manar said. “So this bill isn’t doing anything different than what has already happened with the debate on Senate Bill 444.”

Manar sponsored the school funding reform bill. It was his fourth stab at revamping the formula, and he ended up accepting a major compromise to get Rauner to sign. His goal all along was to replace Illinois’ reliance on property taxes for school funding — a recipe that had made this state’s schools the most inequitable in the nation. Now that the reform has become law, he’s impatient to see the $350 million allocated for lower-income districts start to flow. That means he’s also somewhat skeptical about the necessity of all those requested tweaks, and therefore focused on ISBE Supt. Smith. Almost like Barickman, but not quite.

Barickman’s skepticism is rooted in a hunch that Smith might be altering language to achieve some hidden agenda.

“The bottom line is: He outlined a two-fold role, one which is advocacy, and another which is implementing the law,” Barickman told reporters outside the committee room. “We need him to implement the law.”

Some GOP Senators go a step further. Illinois News Network, which is part of a conservative advocacy organization, has quoted State Sen. Dave Syverson (R-Rockford) calling on Rauner to fire “out of control” ISBE leaders. But in a phone interview days after the hearing, Smith stands by his priorities.

“I’ve been told I’m not supposed to advocate for public schools and public school children,” he says. “And I just go back to: If the state superintendent isn’t supposed to advocate for public districts and public school children, who is?”

He took advocacy to a new level when his board voted unanimously to send the state a budget request for $15.7 billion, double what the state spent on k-12 education in the past. Critics have called it illogical, pointing out that the state is about $2 billion in the hole. But Smith says the new evidence-based school funding formula has revealed exactly what each district needs, and what each district can afford. He compacts it into a simple factoid: One district is at 45 percent adequacy, and at the other end of the spectrum, there’s a district at 285 percent adequacy. Now that Smith knows the extent of the inequity, he can’t ignore it.

“We’ve defined in law: Here are the things we know work for kids, in all kinds of settings, and we’ve got districts that can provide less than half of it, and people are not outraged?” he asks. “That does hurt me. I mean, that is what breaks my heart.”

Schools have been getting the same money they received last year, but underfunded districts have been anticipating some of the $350 million extra dollars promised in the reform legislation. Smith says his agency has been busy verifying a gazillion new data points required by this bill, and promises the ISBE will finished in time for districts to get the extra cash before the school year ends.

But it’s obvious that — as with any major, complex legislation — lawmakers will get more trailer bills, which will give Rauner more opportunities to get creative with his veto pen, and more opportunities for allies to disagree. That political matrimony solemnized in August is starting to look like a shotgun wedding, where the parties now need to decide whether they’re willing to stay together for the sake of Illinois’ kids.