It can be tough to find a bipartisan effort on any substantive issue at the capitol. But State Representatives Will Davis (a Democrat) and Bob Pritchard (a Republican) are still co-sponsoring House Bill 2808, designed to make school funding more equitable. These two lawmakers were both members of Governor Bruce Rauner's School Funding Reform Commission. That was a bipartisan, bicameral group that spent six months studying Illinois school funding issues and creating a framework for how to fix it. Last night, they sat down for an impromptu chat about their legislation, and why it keeps changing, with our education desk reporter, Dusty Rhodes.
The House Education Task Force adjourned early, after spending just about 30 minutes discussing the latest amendment to Davis and Pritchard's school funding overhaul bill. In fact, the meeting was so brief, Pritchard missed it entirely. But that's okay, because this legislation is still very much a work in progress.
DR: I remember when you first filed this bill. You told me you planned to file one amendment. You thought it would just be one.
Rep. Will Davis: I guess at the time I thought it would just be one, but you know, we’re listening to members on both sides to try to see if there are ways to help deal with some of the challenges that they have presented. And then of course there are a couple of additional bills. So maybe we thought maybe the next amendment could be everything, but there have been some decisions to put things in other bills. So it’s becoming a series of sorts. But nevertheless, we hope that we are reasonably covering at least most of the challenges that members have presented, and this is the best way to do it.
DR: So you’re not at the point of saying this is it, I’m done talking.
Rep. Davis: Well, no. Definitely not. I mean there’s still, I think Rep. Pritchard still has some other items that we’re going to see if we can address; there’s still yet a conversation about Chicago Public Schools that we’re trying to consider. Again, part of our package includes yet-to-be-filed bills dealing with mandate relief, some property tax relief as well. Everything works together but those are going to be two different bills. We’re trying to keep HB 2808 — or at least what we think of or call the “Evidence-Based Model” as much to just about how we distribute dollars to schools versus all the other pieces that come along with making sure that we’re addressing a lot of the different needs that exist.
DR: What issues do you think still need to be addressed, Rep. Pritchard?
Rep. Pritchard: So the goal at the very beginning was to craft a bill that would make our education funding more adequate and equitable, and to get to 61 votes to pass it in the House. Getting to 61 leads to the discussions Will’s talking about, leads to the request for some amendments. If the decision is made to put some of these elements outside of the bill — which I’m okay with, as long as we can link them together, kind of our own “Grand Bargain” in the House — then I would support that. But I would also come back and say, with the challenges we’re having with CPS, maybe that ought to be a stand-alone bill as well. And really try to deal with HB 2808 as the commission dealt with it: Elements that focus very clearly on every student getting adequate funding.
DR: Both of you were on the Governor’s School Funding Reform Commission, how close do you think HB 2808 right now is to the general consensus of the commission? Who wants to answer that?
Rep. Davis: Well, I would say myself as well as the other advocates that I’ve been working with — because that’s come up, apparently, in some other conversations, we’re going to do kind of a side-by-side analysis of what the commission discussed, what 2808 and potentially other things both amendments represent — so we’ll have kind of what is a side-by-side comparison of commission work and commission points that came out versus the way the bill is drafted currently.
DR: Okay so tonight, the questions came from representatives who were NOT part of the commission. Since Rep. Pritchard wasn’t here, Davis, you want to tell him what he missed?
Rep. Prichard: (laughing) I can just anticipate.
Rep. Davis: I think what I heard from a couple of members is that, as they’re examining the runs for their districts, they’re looking at what the adequacy target is and I guess really trying to understand what that really means. Now, mind you, this is about distribution of state dollars. So the adequacy target is based on getting to 90 percent of adequacy, assuming that the federal government backfills the other 10 percent. And they were looking at what they think their districts are spending and maybe they knew that number included federal funds but they’re trying to make it seem like they didn’t know … maybe as a way to try and confuse us, but nevertheless, we’re talking about the distribution of state dollars, not the distribution of federal funds. So I think their discrepancy in numbers can be accounted for with the addition of federal dollars that they didn’t seem to account for during their questions.
DR: Two things occur to me, just kind of in general, it’s a little frustrating to listen to people talk about school funding who may be… I don’t know how to characterize it … a little newer to the discussion?
Rep. Pritchard: That’s very generous. So everybody that’s talking about this comes with a certain preconceived set of notions of how reform is going to affect their districts. If there are losers, they’re going to be against it. Right now, there are some districts that perceive they’re losers. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that there is one district that is perceived to be a big winner. And that’s where, then, their discussion kind of goes, and their mindset about the questions they’re raising.
DR: And that comes down to, kind of, you being in the pickle. Or what you told me earlier is that you feel like you’re in a vise. Because it’s your party, the Republican party, that seems very opposed to Chicago Public Schools getting as much money as Democrats want them to have. So what kind of situation are you in?
Rep. Pritchard: Well, that’s been somewhat the motivation for some of the amendments that I’ve suggested to Will. Chicago will do well under the (proposed) formula, because students in need are going to receive the resources they need. CPS doesn’t believe that. There are a lot of citizens that don’t believe that. But that’s where we’ve got to do the runs, that’s where we’ve got to build some level of confidence. And if we don’t start this model, we’ll never see that confidence.
But clearly, we’ve got to look again at the premise the Governor’s commission started out, with treating all districts alike and looking at the needs of every student. And that’s where we ought to end up. I think the governor was behind the commission report and would’ve signed it. But as Will has tried to move this bill and as we give and take to get the votes, there’s changes. And those changes then alter the equation of who’s going to be for it and who’s going to be against it.
I still have confidence that Will’s going to come up with a good bill, we’re going to be very close to the original agenda that we had for the commission, and in the end, this is compromise. In compromise, there’s going to be give and take. And right now, we’ve got to make sure that everybody’s willing to give and take, instead of just take.
Rep. Davis: But some of the other side of what Bob just said is — even if CPS doesn’t think that they get everything that they need, there are some members, on both sides, who think that if you give anything to CPS, even what the formula just calls for, that they’re getting more. Therefore, they may be against it as well. So it kind of plays in both directions. And last week, in my conversations, I started to use the phrase “what’s reasonable.” And at the end of the day, this has to be about what’s reasonable. I mean, regardless of how you may feel about CPS, I mean, we do have to acknowledge that yes, they do have the highest percentage of low-income kids. And those kids deal with things different from other districts before they even get to school and how that factors into their ability to learn. The model is designed to try to recognize how we can address some of those other needs, in addition to what they need in the classroom.
But it becomes a matter of what’s reasonable. And that’s becoming, to me, how I feel we can at least move the ball forward as we look at a district that, by the formula, does something that I’ll use the phrase “goofy,” as some people like to say. Okay fine. But can we address it? Maybe. But in doing so, we don’t want to harm significantly more districts. So let’s think about what’s reasonable. We’re not suggesting your districts should be hurt by what we’re doing. But if there’s a way to create the balance necessary where districts still come out on the good side, you know, it just becomes a question of what’s reasonable.
And ultimately, this is a question that will be asked of the Chicago Public Schools: What’s reasonable for you that we might be able to get a bipartisan bill, get it passed out of both chambers and get it to the governor. Now, what he may do we still don’t know. But I’m examining what’s reasonable in this conversation.
DR: And just for the record, I feel like we need to say this again — Rep. Davis, you are not from Chicago, you don’t represent Chicago Public Schools at all in your district.
Rep. Davis: Not in my current map. When I was first elected in 2003, I did have a very small piece of Chicago. The following re-map pushed me 100 percent into the suburbs. I’m actually not from Chicago. I don’t live in Chicago, nor does my district represent any part of Chicago.
DR: And Rep. Pritchard, you’re not either.
Rep. Pritchard: I’m 60 miles west of Chicago. I have no part of Cook County. But yet I realize Cook County affects this whole state. And when we have a school system that, for whatever reason, is failing to prepare those children for the next step in their career and in their life, it affects all of us. And every year we come back with needs in Chicago, and we sometimes patch it together and sometimes we don’t. The school funding formula is fundamentally going to change some of those dynamics, and we’re going to change the discussion. Because now you can’t say well we’re not putting adequate funding into your educational needs based on the type of students that you have. If we can get that past us, then we can focus on the next set of issues. There’s a lot of issues with CPS when you look at leadership, when you look at citizens that don’t feel they have a voice in their school like citizens do elsewhere around the state, you know something’s wrong in that system. I’d like to see us try to address those issues, but it starts with trying to put adequate funding into education.
DR: In the governor’s commission, there was a general framework for a bill, and toward the last couple of days of the commission, there were spreadsheets passed out showing anonymous districts. They were real districts but they weren’t named. And the whole purpose of that, from what I heard in the room, was to come to an agreement on concepts and principles, good ideas about funding education, rather than taking a shortcut right to whether my district wins more than another district. But tonight, I saw representatives holding up their own district numbers. And the thing about this formula is, it’s very dynamic — I think that’s the word I’ve heard used. It changes with the demographics of the students, right? So even the numbers you’re looking at tonight may not be your numbers next year, things can change. So how frustrating is it for you, or do you not mind, that people just want to vote on numbers and not concepts?
Rep. Davis: I think I would say something that Bob mentioned earlier is that some of those members weren’t part of the commission. So whatever mindset we had walking into the commission and how we chose to try to look at things, many of those people weren’t. But I think we still recognize that at the end of the day, it’s about that.
Rep. Davis: Numbers, at the end of the day. And again, I can appreciate that, because everybody wants to be protective of their district. But again, we also need them to be thoughtful in wanting to understand how the numbers come together. Because as you heard today, in terms of the interpretations of the numbers, you had a gentleman from the Illinois State Board of Education here. And some of the questions that were asked of him, he tried to do the best he could to answer, but they were asking questions that were kind of outside of just examination of the numbers.
DR: I saw you jump out of your seat.
Rep. Davis: Well, because the one question, as members say that they know what their districts are spending and are looking at a different number on a piece of paper, I want to make sure that they understood that this is state dollars, and that it’s ultimately to get to 90 percent of adequacy. So when it was mentioned that, “My district, if you add everything else in…” Well yeah, if you add everything else in, because you’re adding in federal funds and some other items that are left outside of the model, you’re absolutely right. But don’t make the comparison inappropriately based on the way the numbers are laid out for the state dollars in our efforts to get you to adequacy.
Rep. Pritchard: And one of those areas … Well, let me back up and just say I don’t think anyone understood the previous funding formula, so the fact they don’t understand this one is no surprise. And this one I feel is more complex with more moving parts to it trying to adjust on the number and the types of students you have in your particular district, along with the funds that are available in every other district. So it’s a big moving part and it’s relational. It’s how does your district and its local target of adequacy compare with another district, and how does your revenue compare with another district. And again, I didn’t hear the discussion in committee, but I can imagine that some people would say well our district is spending a lot more than what you’re showing on this piece of paper. That’s because the formula that we’re using is using some assumed tax rates, and most tax rates are higher than the assumed level, so that’s generating more local capacity. And in the interest of trying to help some districts, that’s modified in the formula. But that’s part of the confusion that we’re relating here — all the moving pieces and whether you’re using assumed rates or actual rates, and whether a district is high-tax low-wealth or high-tax high-wealth, there are some low-wealth high-tax districts. They want tax relief. But yet they don’t have enough adequate funding to get tax relief.
At this point, I wanted to ask Pritchard about the series of stories recently published by Dan Proft, the talk radio host who runs a Republican political action committee as well as a chain of 20 community newspapers that openly promote the Republican agenda. Proft's stories focused on a Senate bill that's almost identical to the one Davis and Pritchard have proposed in the House. Both measures include "hold-harmless" provisions designed to ensure that no district loses money. But in his stories, Proft used spreadsheets from a 2016 bill to claim that districts would lose money under the new legislation.
DR: So do you think Dan Proft understands this?
Rep. Pritchard: (laughing) I won’t go there. Dan has his own opinion, his own sources of data. I just know that I try to look at numbers that have been generated by the state board and some of the advocacy groups that have a track record of revealing facts rather than assumptions, and I just think that we need to keep the focus on trying to help every child grow and have adequate funding for the types of needs that student faces.
DR: I’m sorry, I’ve got to push you on this a little bit, because he’s using numbers from a model of a bill that was filed last year, SB 231, and an analysis done in April 2016, to represent a more current bill.
Rep. Pritchard: You report those facts and let the listeners decide on whether he’s presenting an accurate story or not. And unfortunately there are members of the House of Representatives that take everything he says as golden.
DR: Are you one of those?
Rep. Pritchard: I won’t answer that.
DR: Thank you both very much…