By: Mark Glennon*
It’s not uncommon to hear the thought, though it usually comes from the right: Just let everything blow up because sooner is better. “Go ahead, elect Pritzker and let him do what he wants.” Or, “Sure, pass another big tax increase because that will have people going for the pitchforks.”
But this one comes mostly from the left: A demand that the state pay an additional $7.2 billion, immediately, for school funding. For more background, a good Herald & Review article is linked here.
Illinois obviously can’t pay it. A judgement for the plaintiff school districts would decimate the budget. The amount demanded would represent almost 20% of the state’s revenue and roughly double its current contribution to schools (excluding its teacher pension contributions).
But don’t think the lawsuit isn’t viable. It was clearly well-orchestrated and predictable. The logic behind it is simple. Constitutionally, the state has “primary responsibility” for funding: “The State shall provide for an efficient system of high quality education,” it says.
What’s the evidence on whether the state is fulfilling that obligation? That’s what was teed up so nicely. It’s basically an admission by the state that it made in passing, last August, the “evidence” based standards on “adequacy” for school funding. See paragraph four of the legal complaint, linked here.
And ISBE, the state’s own board of education, affirmed the admission by calling current deficiencies “shocking,” as the complaint also emphasizes, and by itself proposing an additional $7.2 billion in its budget request.
I can’t predict how Illinois courts, which are political, will rule on the lawsuit, but it appears viable to me.
So, here are the questions: What do the plaintiffs really want and what should we expect to happen?
I can only speculate, and maybe they don’t have a precise answer, either.
They have to know the state could never pay their immediate demand, but maybe they’d be content to let the bomb go off and let the state figure out how to pay for it. Maybe they’re looking to settle by having the state bind itself to a court order to fund the ramp in school funding that is contemplated by last year’s legislation. It calls for an additional $350 million each year for ten years.
Or maybe they envision a huge shift away from relying on property taxes to fund schools. A big, new state liability would be more palatable if offset by cuts in property taxes.
And what was Governor Rauner thinking as the setup developed? He let the new school funding formula progress on its own through the General Assembly last Spring. He ended up opposing only the bailout elements for Chicago, on which he was overridden. What did he think about his own people at ISBE asking for another $7.2 billion? How does he propose to fund the creature he nurtured?
I don’t think we know how this will play out. Will it be the last straw that prompts the masses to throw up their hands yelling, “The numbers are impossible and Illinois’ crisis is hopelessly complex”? Maybe.
Another possibility is that the enormity of the potential liability will trigger some critical inspection of the new school funding formula, which is long overdue.
On that, look for my partner here at Wirepoints, Ted Dabrowski, to be writing again soon.
*Mark Glennon is founder and Executive Editor of Wirepoints.