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Senate President Calls Illinois School Funding "The Crisis Of Our Time"

Illinois Senate
Credit Illinois Senate
Senate President John Cullerton

Changing how Illinois funds its schools is Senate President John Cullerton's top priority as a new legislative session gets underway. Cullerton, a Chicago Democrat, says Illinois shouldn't fund schools at all next year until it comes with a more equitable way to do it. John Cullerton says the way Illinois funds schools "crushes dreams" and "stifles growth."

"A system that shackles poor communities to poor expectations, while rewarding the affluent with even greater resources," he said. "We cannot continue to dither while some districts are funded at double and triple the state average while others have to convert maintenance closets into art rooms and cut world language and technology." Lawmakers have previously tried, and failed, to update the decades-old system for funding public schools. Traditionally legislators, mostly from suburban districts that would stand to lose funding, have opposed attempts to change the current funding scheme.

There's a wide disparity between districts in how much money is spent on each student because schools largely rely on local property taxes. A complicated formula's used to decide how much each district gets from the state, but what Cullerton's getting at, is that Illinois doesn't put emphasis on how poor a district is, how much it needs.

"If the National Football League operated like our school funding system the Super Bowl champ would be guaranteed the top draft pick," he said.

Cullerton says fixing that is his mission this year.

The top Republican in the House says he's open to the concept, but wants Democrats to work with the governor on his economic agenda.

Separately, Cullerton says it's a bad idea to get out from under the wing of court-ordered spending.

Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner recently said he wants the state to not have to report to federal court for some basic government services. He says the courts force unnecessary spending, and he doesn't want that dictated by judges. But the Senate President said Monday he doesn't support rescinding those agreements.

"He's (Rauner's) the executive branch, he could go back into court, but he'd have to convince a judge," Cullerton said. "There's probably a lot of good reasons for those consent decrees, right? That's why there was an agreement. And so I don't see why we need to do that."

Even though there is no state budget, Illinois is spending 90 percent of what it used to. That's largely because of the consent decrees agreed to by Governor Rauner and previous administrations, and because of court orders where judges have ruled Illinois must continue payments. They cover everything from foster care services to health care to state employee payroll.

Copyright 2016 NPR Illinois | 91.9 UIS

Amanda Vinicky
Amanda Vinicky moved to Chicago Tonight on WTTW-TV PBS in 2017.