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Illinois Leaders Say They've Reached School Funding Deal

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Associated Press, WBEZ staff

Updated 8:20 p.m.

A tentative deal on state school funding includes money to pay Chicago teacher pension costs for the first time, Mayor Rahm Emanuel made clear Thursday evening. The deal also includes a new tax credit program to fund private school scholarships, a source tells WBEZ.

“It means that the money we’ve been sending down to Springfield for the first time [will] come back to our taxpayers to fund our schools,” Emanuel said, referring to pension help for Chicago. The state has long paid teacher pension costs for all districts outside Chicago but contributed little toward Chicago teacher pensions.

Illinois legislative leaders hammered out the tentative agreement Thursday afternoon, opening the door for resolution of a political impasse that is holding up the distribution of state money for all Illinois schools. State lawmakers this spring passed a bill to reform how the state hands out school money but Gov. Bruce Rauner vetoed part of it leading to the current political fight.

Lawmakers wouldn’t release details of the deal but a source says it includes a controversial new tax credit scholarship program program that would allow for donations to private schools in exchange for a state tax credit. Critics have slammed the plan as a voucher program because it diverts tax revenue, which might otherwise fund public schools, away from state coffers.

Emanuel was also tight lipped about the deal and wouldn’t say how taxpayers might be affected. The negotiations reportedly included talk of allowing CPS to raise property taxes above a state cap. All a satisfied Emanuel would say is that this tentative deal would give CPS what it had expected under the vetoed school funding bill “and more.”

Even with an increase in state money, though, the city’s schools still have a $269 million deficit that needs to be addressed with local revenue. Emanuel said he would take up that issue once the state funding impasse is resolved.

Illinois' top legislative leaders have been meeting privately to resolve this funding fight, a spinoff of Illinois' unprecedented two-year budget impasse which just ended last month. While all schools expect to open on time, districts have missed initial payments and aren't sure how long they can stay open.

Republicans and Democrats issued cautious statements after a meeting in Chicago Thursday. Democratic leaders Senate President John Cullerton and House Speaker Michael Madigan said there was "agreement in concept," while Senate Republican Leader Bill Brady and House Republican Leader Jim Durkin characterized it as "agreement in principle."

"Language will be drafted and details of the agreement released once the drafts have been reviewed," the statement from Brady and Durkin read.

The four planned to meet again Sunday at the state Capitol, a day before the Illinois House was expected to convene. Rauner applauded the efforts.

The schools issue has come up now because the spending plan legislators approved last month, ending the long stalemate, requires a new funding formula. There's wide agreement that Illinois' 20-year-old calculation is unfair. But Democrats and Republicans have been at odds over fixes.

The Democrat-run Legislature approved a new formula aimed at reducing disparities in per-student funding that existed between wealthy and poor districts under the previous funding formula. But Rauner, a Republican, removed hundreds of millions of dollars for Chicago Public Schools, saying the plan was overly generous to the nation's third-largest district.

The Illinois Senate overrode Rauner's veto, and the House had planned a similar vote. But legislative leaders said they'd seek a compromise instead.

School superintendents across the state, particularly in central and southern Illinois, have been on edge with schools opening this fall. Many have cut back spending and say they'll have to borrow or dip into reserves to stay open.

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