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Illinois Policy Institute/Eric Kohn

Twenty school districts in the Metro East rely on the state for 30 percent or more of their total revenue.

The start of the 2017-18 school year is rapidly approaching. But many Metro East schools might not be able to open their doors on the first day of school.

The reason? Illinois lawmakers are playing political games, using Illinois school children as pawns, in order to bail out Chicago Public Schools. As a result of this manufactured crisis, more than 44,000 Metro East students and their families are left wondering if the school bells will ring to begin classes.

Downstate Illinoisans shouldn’t have to worry about schools opening, and they shouldn’t be forced to bail out CPS.

Setting the trap

In early July when the Illinois General Assembly pushed through a new state budget with a 32 percent income tax increase on Illinoisans, they also did something unprecedented. The budget made all school funding in Illinois contingent on a new school funding formula becoming law.

Senate Bill 1 rewrites the state’s education funding formula using a so-called “evidence-based” model that is overly complicated and that has failed to improve results in other states where it’s been tried.

But even though the Illinois House of Representatives and Senate have passed SB 1, the bill is currently being held up by the Senate, as Senate President John Cullerton has not yet sent the bill to Gov. Bruce Rauner’s desk.

Rauner, who has promised to issue an amendatory veto to remove a massive bailout of the CPS pension system, has called a new special session in an attempt to resolve this latest crisis.

In the meantime, 20 Metro East school districts have been left in the lurch.

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Twenty grade school and high school districts in Madison and St. Clair counties rely on state appropriations for 30 percent or more of their total funding. In particular, Cahokia CUSD 187, East St. Louis SD 189, Madison CUSD 12 and Dupo CUSD 196 all depend on the state for more than 50 percent of their total revenue.

For East St. Louis SD 189 that translates to more than $57.5 million dollars it is expecting from Springfield that might not be there. For Belleville SD 118, it’s more than $20 million.

The flaws of SB 1

SB 1, as written, is also fundamentally unfair to Metro East taxpayers. In addition to the $215 million bailout of CPS pensions, the bill also contains $200 million in special block grant funding for the district. It also allows CPS to hide the true annual cost of the district’s massive unfunded pension liability when it applies for state aid. As a result, the district appears poorer than it actually is, thus making it eligible for even more state funding.

That means Metro East taxpayers will not only be paying for their local school districts, but they’ll also be forced to pay for years of fiscal mismanagement by CPS leaders. And local school districts will suffer as they are forced to share even more money with CPS.

Lawmakers should stop holding Illinois school children hostage. They should scrap SB 1 and amend the budget to allow school funding to be appropriated under the state’s existing formula. This way, Metro East families, and all families in Illinois, will have confidence that their schools will open on time.

Once that’s done, lawmakers should begin working on real education reform that fixes the expensive pension system, consolidates the state’s 859 school districts to reduce the bloated size of the education bureaucracy, and eliminate duplicative administrators.

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