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Volume 24, Number 22, April 24, 2017

Mad dash to adjournment begins today

By Jim Broadway, Publisher, Illinois School News Service

There’s only five months in a spring session of the General Assembly (used to be six), and we are very close to entering the final month with less than half of the work done.

Relatively few bills have reached the “second chamber” (House bills in the Senate; Senate bills in the House), Friday’s third-reading deadline for bills to pass out of the chamber of origin is looming and, of course, there’s still no sign of a developing budget. The next few weeks will wear you out.

Apparently they're feeling the pressure in the House. The chamber will convene today for some floor session debate, maybe take a final action vote on some of the many House bills still cluttering their calendar, and then convene a half-dozen committees with a few straggling bills and a slew of resolutions to consider.

If you think, just because none of the committees appear to deal with PK-12 education as their primary mission, for that reason you don't have to pay attention to them - think again. At this stage of the process, it's a wise lobbyist who runs every committee's agenda through her computer.

For example, take a look at the agenda of the Cities & Villages Committee. It has only two bills to consider. One of them, sponsored by Rep. Robert Rita (D-Blue Island), seems to be about motor fuel taxes. Click the link to HB 3535, then click "Full Text" on the status page. Yep, motor fuel taxes. No amendments.

What about HB 537, sponsored by Rep. Robert Pritchard (R-Sycamore)? The committee agenda omits its "short title." That means Pritchard has an amendment up his sleeve. Click "Full Text." You were right, there's not just one amendment, but there are three! The third amendment most likely carries the freight.

Yes. Scroll down to page four of Amendment 3 and you'll see that school districts are explicitly included in the effects of the bill, which specifies information that would have to be included in the public notice of a property tax referendum. (On Page 1, notice that the bill requires far more advance notice than currently.)

The bill got out of committee way back in February, in spite of the fact that only a right-wing group supported it and the heavy hitters of local government interests opposed it. Usually that means the sponsor has promised to amend the bill to remove the opposition. We'll see this afternoon if it worked.

There is a bill pending with the potential to benefit the elected school boards in every county. What benefit would that be? The benefit of not having to worry that a school board's vote the deny a charter school application could be overturned by the Illinois State Charter School Commission, which is currently the case.

The bill that would prevent that is HB 768, sponsored by Rep. Emanuel Chris Welch (D-Westchester), with support from a thoughtful and influential group of co-sponsors. It was approved by the PK-12 committee on appropriations about a month ago. It needs a passing floor vote by Friday or it could be curtains.

Eighty-seven witnesses supported the bill, and 50 signed slips in opposition. The committee vote was essentially partisan; one Democrat joined all Republicans in voting againt it.

Why would all the Republicans vote for a bill that would let an anonymous state commission overturn the decisions of the elected boards of education in every school district they represent? First, it's a "choice" issue. Republicans say they oppose monopolies, at least for schools. More importantly, Gov. Bruce Rauner - who has allocated $50 million of his own money for political campaigns next year - is a massive charter school advocate.

The "Raise Your Hand" organization has a "call your legislator" campaign going in support of HB 768. You can read their fact sheet (it's a Google doc) at this link. I tend to agree with them, mainly on the basis of  local control. The SCSC is just one of far too many ways the state has tied the hands of local school boards.

RYH wants ISBE to reject a $42 million charter start-ups grant.

Can this bill pass? Sure it can. But the question is, can it become law? The votes against the SCSC are there in both the House and the Senate, a sufficient number of votes to pass the bill by comfortable margins. But Rauner would surely veto it and, unless a few Republicans actually vote their districts, that would kill it.

Another question is whether House Speaker Michael Madigan will allow the bill to receive a third-reading vote in the House. Aside from any sense of futility he might see in such a vote, this bill may have more value to him in negotiations with the governor on other issues than it has as a good government initiative.

The fact that the bill emerged from committee almost a month ago and has not been called for a vote on the House floor is not a good sign. The charter commission continues to accumulate influence in the policy process. Also, legislators with influence have tried to pull its teeth before, only to fall short.

So much for local control of schools.

The House Revenue & Finance Committee has an agenda of mostly resolutions to consider at its hearing at 9 a.m. Tuesday. A resolution that may draw some attention is HR 112, a proposal by Rep. Mark Batinick (R-Plainfield) to end the session with a balanced budget and no tax or fee increases.

Batinick calls his resolution the "1, 2, 3" plan. One, pass a budget based on existing revenue expectations and "pension reform." Two, pay off existing bills (they will total $14 billion by May 31) by issuing bonds or selling state assets. Three, "reform" state and local government operations (eliminate unions) to finish the job.

Pretty simple. I'm amazed that it's even been posted for a hearing. Perhaps it was scheduled just to demonstrate how empty of substance so many ideas fluttering out of the GOP caucus can be.

If the House and Senate keep to their posted schedules, both chambers will be in session on the majority of weekdays between now and the end of May. The budgets (for the last half of this fiscal year and for all of FY 2018) are again the big issue. You wouldn't think the state would go three years without a budget.

The bills and resolutions provide plenty of surface-level noise to keep everyone's attention, while budget negotiations (eventually there will be some, even if they fail) go on behind the closed doors of the governor's office. The next few weeks will tell a lot about how the next couple of years will go.

I truly appreciated the thoughtful comments I received concerning last week's discussion of "freedom of speech" as it relates to the proposed evidence-based school funding reform proposals and their impact on special education funding. I received convincing arguments from folks on both sides of the issue I addressed.

To review, without naming anyone, the question is this: Do the school funding reform proposals eliminate funding that is specifically targeted to special education? No one seems comfortable enough with their position to assert that is not the case. Eventually, the proposals wrap most special education funding into the General State Aid formula and distribute it all on the basis of need; schools with most poverty, most ELL kids, least EAV - they get more state support.

Then the question becomes: Does the loss of targeted special education funding matter? My sense was that it does not. With or without targed funds, the children with IEPs will continue to have a right to FAPE (and not just "de minimis") by state and federal law. Would the school districts violate the law?

That seems to be the fault line. Unless dollars are provided by the state, in specific amounts based on the number of kids with IEPs and the nature of their needs, there are thoughtful, experienced professionals who believe that many school districts, far too many, would short-change their kids with special needs.

It has been my habit to hold a most positive view of educators and school board members. I want to believe that skimping on special education would be a rare aberration, not a common fiscal practice. Ant yet, there's already so much litigation with funding levels identified and restrictions against spending it for other purposes.

The bottom line, for me, is that there are arguable positions on both sides. Funding inequity is at immorallevels in our state; that cannot be denied. But improper decisions against parents seeking more services for their children seem to be too common already; why else would law firms specialize in that area?

You know me. I favor graduated tax rates like Minnesota's, and sales taxes on services, as in almost all other states. I do not favor pretending to be Minnesota and actually being like Mississippi. Special education funding should be guaranteed, and all children should have the same educational starting line in life.

Until a few weeks ago, I believed - as you know - that it would be more "impossible" for the legislators to go home at the end of the session without achieving a "grand bargain" that would put us on the right path, fiscally and from a social responsibility standpoint, than it would be for them to enact such a bargain.

But the executive branch would have to be a part of achieving such an impossible dream, and my sense now is that Gov. Rauner is sticking with his own impossible agenda. Many folks have told me they don't think we will see a valid budget until his term is up and he is out of office. It looks like they may be right.

ISNS past issues back through 2015 are available again for subscribers. You remember the process. Go to this web page, click the "Subscribers-only" link and type in the secret password - which is currently: budget-drafters. Remember, this is a secret, just between us insiders, so don't go blabbing it around. Thanks. - Jim

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