Last week, Gov. Bruce Rauner used his veto authority to make big changes to a small clean-up bill that’s necessary to enact school funding reform. Democrats who pushed the reform warned that Rauner’s action could derail the bipartisan effort to make school funding more equitable. As it turns out, they’re not the only ones upset about it.
In a statement announcing his amendatory veto, Rauner said he was correcting a “defect” that shut dozens of private schools out of a new tax credit program. He specifically mentioned “schools that serve the African-American community.” State Rep. La Shawn Ford (D-Chicago) works closely with those schools.
“I lobbied on behalf of the constituents that most need the tax credit program,” he said. “There is a historic African-American school that educates black young men on the South Side of Chicago name Hales Franciscan. We also have a school that my daughter's used to go to a private school called Village Leadership Academy, in downtown Chicago, that’s African-American run and operated and has 100 percent minority students.” Ford says administrators from those two schools had been involved in talks about a voucher program or something similar for at least two years, and they played a crucial role in selling that idea to a skeptical audience for some reason.
“Blacks and Democrats believe that if we move toward supporting private institutions with public money, we will erode the traditional public education,” Ford says. “And so these schools, they want against the fabric of the black community, and they said ‘We're going to support this,’ and they were ambassadors for the program. But at the last minute they were shut out.”
How were they shut out? Think back to last summer. The state had gone two years without a budget. When lawmakers finally ended that impasse, the budget bill they approved had a booby-trap stating no money could go to schools until the state adopted a more equitable formula. But Rauner vetoed that formula, forcing legislative leaders to hastily craft a compromise, which they accomplished behind closed doors. That's when they inserted this new tax credit scheme. By then it was late August; schools were already in session and desperate for money. The plan was rushed through without a single public hearing.
Ford says administrators of Hales Franciscan and Village Leadership Academy had no way of knowing they had been left out of the deal.
“So those leaders should have least been given the notice that they would have to be ‘recognized’ in order to participate in it,” he says.
That term — “recognized” — sounds bland. But it's kind of a big deal. It's the stamp of approval the State Board of Education gives to schools that meet a 17-page list of standards for curriculum, health and safety. For example, a school has to prove students are immunized, and that staff members have passed criminal background checks. Then all that information is verified by investigators who visit the facility.
But many schools simply register with the state. Registration requires a simple 5-page form pledging “assurances,” and it’s on the honor system. No site visit required. “The question I have is why do we have ‘registered’ and ‘recognized’?” Ford asks. “This is telling me that the state says that certain schools are better, but we accept subpar schools. That makes no sense, and that's why I'm also proposing a bill to say that every school should be meeting the criteria of being recognized, if you're going to have a school in the state of Illinois.”
Rauner took a different approach with his amendatory veto. He wants to include all registered schools and offer an extra month for even more schools to register. The stakes are high: Schools that aren't on the approved list will likely be shut out of the tax credit program for years. Out of the $75 million worth of tax credits available, more than $30 million have already been claimed. The bill made in haste is being implemented at the same pace. Illinois Department of Revenue, tasked with administering the private school tuition tax credit program, had to use “emergency” rule-making to launch it on time.
Ford says he tried to slow down the process, but couldn’t. After our interview last week, he released a statement asking Rauner to call a special session, but he’s not holding his breath.
“I think that this is a lesson for how not to do bill-making,” Ford said. “You must have public hearings, and that's why they are part of the process. People suffer when when it's a few people making the deals.”
Lawmakers are scheduled to return to the Capitol next week.