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State of the State: Will Illinois Reform School Funding Without Another Constitutional Convention?

Bethany Jaeger
WUIS/Illinois Issues

The state has the primary responsibility for financing the system of public education.

— The Illinois Constitution, 1970

Illinois’ public education system is described as the haves vs. the have nots, primarily because school finance mostly depends on local property taxes. In the 2005-2006 school year, the most recent data available from the Illinois State Board of Education, property tax revenues funded nearly 60 percent of the cost. The state has contributed about 30 percent, or about $7 billion annually, in recent years. So property-poor districts have less money to go around than do property-rich districts.

But that’s primarily by design.

Framers of Illinois’ 1970 Constitution meant to preserve local control, according to Ann Lousin, a delegate to the 1970 Constitutional Convention and current professor at the John Marshall Law School in Chicago.

“The ensuing debate encapsulated all of the issues of state vs. local control, state financing vs. local financing, increased funding vs. equality of funding, et cetera. We are scarcely any closer to resolving these deep-seated philosophical issues in 2008 than the convention was in 1970,” Lousin writes in a report explaining her opposition to a statewide referendum that will appear on the November 4 ballot.

The first question will ask voters whether Illinois should convene another convention to revisit the state charter.

Delegates could rewrite the entire document, or they could change one portion, such as school funding. Either way, voters would get the final say on whether to ratify the new constitution. But they could only accept or reject it in its entirety, not pick and choose its parts.

Opponents such as Lousin argue the 1970 Constitution was built to last. She and others say a convention could open Pandora’s?box, releasing the evils of narrow interests and political agendas.

A frequent guest speaker on the topic, Lousin recalls the 1970 debate over whether the Constitution should require 100 percent state funding, omit any reference to school funding altogether or draft language for “something in between.” 

The consensus was to insert language that prioritizes state funding of public education; yet, the language simply advises, not defines, state support.

Throughout 38 years, there have been numerous efforts to address the inequities through constitutional amendments, lawsuits and even recent boycotts of Chicago Public Schools. 

None has succeeded, leading such advocates as Bruno Behrend to contend that a convention could clarify the state’s responsibility to fund public education. The radio talk show host in Waukegan co-founded the Illinois Citizens Coalition, which supports the referendum, saying it would return power to the citizens and make government more accountable. 

“I don’t think this is that great a Constitution, and I don’t think it’s really a very good living document,” he says. “What it is — and maybe it wasn’t intended that way — but what it has become is something that’s virtually unenforceable.”

Yet a convention may not engender as much clarity as hoped. Even if voters agreed with a new education provision, they might not like other changes. 

Because increased state funding for education likely would require more revenue from tax increases, suburban Chicago taxpayers, for instance, could oppose it because they already pay among the highest rates in the state. Anything less than a 60 percent favorable vote would sink the entire document.

Furthermore, even if enough voters approved a new education article, it would be very difficult for delegates to write language that would guarantee change, says Charlie Wheeler, longtime Statehouse reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times and current director of the Public Affairs Reporting graduate program at the University of Illinois at Springfield.

“It’s pretty easy to put something in the Constitution that stops something from happening,” he says. “It’s a lot harder to get something in there to force something to happen.” 

The most recent momentum for change gathered speed in 2006, when state Sen. James Meeks of Chicago and Rep. David Miller of Lynwood, both Democrats, advanced legislation to increase state income and sales taxes and decrease the burden on local property taxes to pay for education. The so-called tax swap idea has had nine lives and numerous versions, but a survey by the Chicago Urban League and Voices for Illinois Children that year showed 66 percent of the 600 participants supported the tax swap concept if it meant equitable funding for schools.

Even business executives represented by the Civic Federation of Chicago agreed with the need to increase personal and corporate income taxes, provided the revenue chiseled away at compounding state debt and other chronic problems.

Momentum fizzled. 

Gov. Rod Blagojevich repeatedly vowed to veto any income tax hike, and the business group withdrew its support because it lost confidence in state leaders to spend any new revenue wisely.

Meeks is trying again. In September, he organized a boycott of the first few days of school on Chicago’s south side to draw attention to the disparities between his area and such wealthier districts as New Trier Township High School District 203 in Winnetka. He also met with the governor a few weeks later, but no progress was reported. 

Rep. John Fritchey, a Chicago Democrat, says the debate should be taken out of the politically charged legislative arena. He sponsored a bill to encourage Illinois voters to support the referendum for a constitutional convention.

“I have a lot more faith in the delegates to make the tough decisions than I do in the legislature,” he says.

Miller says he agrees that the state should have a convention to focus the dialogue. “We need all the vehicles that are going to be available to us to try to move this issue forward.” 

The solution to education funding problems doesn’t have to be a tax swap, he says. “It’s not either or. It’s all of the above. ... I think at the end of the day, we’re trying to get grassroots support to solve this problem, which would, at least, help create political pressure for those in these [legislative] districts.”

But opponents believe the issue is a legislative prerogative.

There’s nothing stopping the General Assembly from making such changes, other than people saying, “Yeah, that’s a good idea, but don’t take it from me,” says Abner Mikva, former legislator, congressman, judge and White House counsel.

“We don’t need a constitution to point out our selfishness,” he says.

Although Mikva and Lousin helped write the 1970 Constitution, they oppose this year’s referendum and belong to an organized campaign of teachers’ unions and business and labor groups called the Alliance to Protect the Illinois Constitution. In a $3 million campaign, they say the estimated $100 million pricetag is too expensive, and the risk of opening up the entire document in the current political environment is too high. They fear individuals who want to add or subtract single hot-button issues, including bans on gay marriage or abortion. And they want to protect public employee pensions and health benefits.

Lousin says the state has a leadership problem, not a constitutional dilemma. Rather than rewriting the entire document, she promotes electing new officials and using the existing process of enacting individual constitutional amendments. 

Of 18 amendments proposed, Illinois voters have ratified 10 and defeated eight. That includes a failed 1992 amendment that would have required the state to be the predominant source of education funding.

In the past year, the House and the Senate advanced separate amendments that would have changed the state’s flat income tax rate — currently 3 percent for individuals and 5 percent for businesses — to a progressive rate that increased with income levels. But both chambers soundly rejected the measures.

Lousin proposes forcing change with a deadline. In five years, for instance, the existing school funding system would expire. Districts could not float bonds based on property tax revenues without voter approval. The “drop dead date” would demand a commitment to change.

Wheeler says reform may not happen through the legislative process or through a constitutional convention, but it could occur with a change of characters.

“Either we get a new governor who recognizes fiscal reality, or somehow or other, Gov. Blagojevich turns over a new leaf and recognizes fiscal reality. And when that happens, I think we’ll see it.”

The Chicago Urban League hopes for answers before then. Following in the footsteps of a 1992 lawsuit, Committee for Educational Rights v. Edgar, the civil rights group filed suit in Cook County Circuit Court arguing that Illinois’ educational system discriminates based on race. 

“Our children, especially African Americans and Latinos, have been left behind because of poorly funded schools while their white counterparts in wealthy communities are thriving,” Cheryle Jackson, president and chief executive officer of the organization, said in a prepared statement.

The complaint includes an argument that the financing of public education in Illinois violates the Uniformity of Taxation provision of the current Constitution. The plaintiffs want the court to declare the state’s school system unconstitutional. 

The 1992 case was dismissed. Even if the 2008 case wins a favorable decision, the court could bounce the issue back to the General Assembly, ruling that voters elected legislators to make such decisions. 

With or without a convention, and with or without new leaders, school funding reform won’t happen until voters and lawmakers are ready to make sacrifices.

The consensus [in 1970] was to insert language that prioritizes state funding of public education; yet, the language simply advises, not defines, state support.

Even if enough voters approved a new education article, it would be very difficult for delegates to write language that would guarantee change.

Bethany Jaeger can be reached at capitolbureau@aol.com.

Illinois Issues, October 2008

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