By Felix Perez and Amanda Litvinov
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Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback and Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner have been engaging in high-stakes budget brinkmanship for months, and students, their families and communities are paying the price. The latest in a series of negative consequences include the likelihood that schools will be shuttered, educators laid off and core public services cut.
In Illinois, home to the fifth-largest economy in the nation, Rauner’s insistence on going after unions with his “Turnaround Agenda” has forced the state to go without a budget for nearly a year. Rauner, who became a multimillionaire through private equity financing, refuses to sign a budget unless state workers are stripped of their right to bargain benefits and wages and other pre-conditions are met.
According to Illinois Working Together, a coalition of labor, faith and community groups, Rauner’s my-way-or-the-highway stance has hurt residents. “Public colleges and universities statewide have announced layoffs, social service agencies are shutting down, construction projects have stalled, and businesses are owed billions for goods and services provided to the state. Rauner is pushing policies that will lower the quality of life for all Illinoisans, especially those who depend on a weekly paycheck.”
Most recently, Rauner refused to sign a short-term, bipartisan budget passed by the legislature that would fund schools and human services. Meanwhile, Illinois’ credit rating has sunk to near junk status.
If there is no budget by July 1, universities, domestic violence shelters and food stamps will run out of emergency funding to operate. It’s uncertain if schools would be able to start the new school year.
In a blistering editorial, the Chicago Sun-Times took Rauner to task. “You say you want to work with the Democratic-controlled Legislature to pass a short-term budget to keep the state on its feet. You say you want to pass a separate bill to fund the public schools. Both worthy goals. But your rhetoric says no such thing. Your rhetoric says you want a fight. It says you cannot be trusted.”
Rauner did not help himself when he made remarks early this month widely panned as offensive, if not racist. Commenting on Chicago’s public schools, the governor said;
When you look objectively at the status of Chicago Public Schools, many of them are inadequate. Many of them are woeful and some are just tragic. Many of them are basically just crumbling prisons. They’re not a place a young person should be educated.
Democrats in the General Assembly want to provide money to Chicago’s public schools to help the district dig out of its financial hole. Rauner repeatedly has dismissed the proposal as a “bailout.”
Meanwhile in Kansas, Governor Brownback and his allies in the legislature are attempting to blame the state Supreme Court for a school funding crisis of their own making.
The court rejected the legislature’s first school funding plan in May. Now, Kansas lawmakers must reconvene for a special session that begins June 23 to craft a more equitable school funding formula. If they fail to meet the court’s June 30 deadline, schools might not re-open in the fall.
While the Governor and his allies attempt to persuade citizens that the Supreme Court is to blame for this funding muddle, recent media polling suggests Kansans strongly disagree. Parents, educators and public education supporters from both parties have warned for years that the governor’s so-called “march to zero” income taxes and corporate tax giveaways would lead to a moment like this.
Kansas’ revenue shortfalls—currently projected to be $228 million over the next 15 months—are the direct result of income tax cuts that mostly benefit the wealthy. Those cuts have drained resources for public services including education, and put a heavier burden on hard-working families through other taxes.
Lawmakers must make changes to the portion of the school funding formula that addresses Local Option Budget (LOB), which allows residents to supplement the budget of their own school district. Most of that funding comes through property taxes, which puts wealthier districts at an obvious advantage. Since Gov. Brownback’s block grant funding scheme was enacted in 2015, state aid has been insufficient in reducing the disparity of resources between wealthy and low-income districts.
The LOB accounts for roughly 25 percent of school funding in Kansas.
“During this special legislative session, lawmakers must focus with laser-sharp intensity on one issue and one alone—restoring equity to the LOB,” wrote Kansas NEA Director of Legislative and Political Advocacy Mark Desetti.
“Going forward, in order to restore fiscal stability to the state and to provide for all the services upon which Kansas citizens depend, future legislatures must look to adopting tax policy that is fair to all and provides the revenue necessary to serve the people.”
Kansas-NEA reports that educators are reaching out to their representatives through emails, phone calls, and at scheduled forums to convey their expectation that the legislature will finally fulfill its duty according to the state Constitution and fund public schools equitably and adequately.