Our success in funding schools shows GOP and Dems can work together

by Illinois House Republican Leader Jim Durkin

For decades, Illinois state government has had a reputation for partisan gridlock and dysfunction. We’ve seen battles in which the only glaring difference keeping people from coming together was political affiliation.

Yet several weeks ago, it became crystal clear that partisan rancor finally had to be put aside for the sake of far more important priorities.

It’s widely known that leading up to last week, Illinois had one of the most inequitable school funding systems in the nation. For decades, we used a one-size-fits-all approach that led to great disparities in how much money, per pupil, schools received to educate our children. This created a statewide system of winning and losing school districts. But because the needs of students varied greatly from community to community, reforming the way we fund our schools eluded lawmakers.

Leading up to the end of the legislative session in Springfield in May, great progress was made between Republican and Democrat negotiators in the Senate and the House to craft a bipartisan compromise that both sides could support. But, as often happens, partisan politics won out and the compromise was drastically altered without Republican input in the session’s final days, putting the agreed-to reforms in jeopardy.

So three weeks ago, the four legislative leaders — Senate President John Cullerton, House Speaker Michael Madigan, Senate Republican Leader Bill Brady and myself — began to meet to find a bipartisan solution to school funding reform and ensure that our schools remained open. Abandoning partisanship, we spent countless hours over the next two weeks coming to agreement on the major remaining issues to ensure schools are funded adequately and fairly for years to come.

Using the recommendations from Gov. Bruce Rauner’s Education Funding Reform Commission and input from teachers, principals, superintendents and advocates across our state, we found a solution in which every child in every school district wins.

The school funding compromise signed into law by the governor last week does the following:
  • Provides for historic funding of Illinois schools in fiscal year 2018
  • Establishes an evidence-based formula that ensures adequacy and equity, so that students in the poorest districts in Illinois receive funding first.
  • Allows for property tax relief for high-taxed, high-funded school districts.
  • Creates a tax credit scholarship program to expand school choice for children from low-income families.
  • Further expands choice through more equitable charter school funding to allow every child to be treated fairly according to their parents’ choice.
  • Ensures that the Chicago Public Schools are not singled out, but treated the same as every other school district in the state.
Simply put, under this new formula, every student across our state will receive access to the high-quality education they deserve.

This solution is also proof that bipartisan, bicameral compromise is possible in Springfield. It shows that through productive negotiations and conversations – with the same end goal in sight – both sides of both chambers can find and agree on solutions in which everyone walks away as a winner.

It was a historic moment when the governor signing the school funding reform measure into law. My hope is that this victory will serve as a framework as we move forward in the statehouse because there is much more work that needs to be done to make Illinois a thriving state once again.

I firmly believe that through bipartisan collaboration, such as we saw last week, much more can be accomplished.