Phil Kadner, columnist for the SouthTown Star
Updated: March 10, 2013 3:41AM
If a divorce court judge issued an order stating you had the “primary responsibility” for financial support of your children, would you assume that means 27 percent of the cost?
An outrageous assumption.
Yet that’s how our government in Illinois interprets the Illinois Constitution, which reads, “The State Board of Education has the primary responsibility for financing the system of public education.”
For more than 30 years the state has been shifting the cost of public education onto local public school districts, which means higher property taxes for homeowners and business owners.
In his budget message last week, Gov. Pat Quinn proposed hundreds of millions of dollars in new cuts to education, claiming they are needed to help pay down the increasing state pension date.
Why does the state have such a massive pension debt?
In large part, for the same reason the state has failed to fund public education.
For about 30 years, Illinois simply refused to fund the pension system.
A study released by the Education Law Center in 2010, “Is School Funding Fair? A National Report Card,” gave Illinois an “F,” claiming the state had “the most regressive” school funding system in the nation.
That means it had the second-highest disparity of funding between high-poverty and low-poverty schools nationally.
Three blue-ribbon panels have been formed over the years by the state government to study the issue of public school funding.
Each one said the state government had failed to adequately support education.
There were calls to raise the state income tax to support public education.
Public opinion polls demonstrated an overwhelming number of Illinois residents were willing to support such a tax increase for education.
Former Republican Gov. Jim Edgar proposed an income tax hike and property tax relief back in the 1990s, only to see his own party kill the bill in the Illinois Senate.
Former State Sen. James Meeks (D-Chicago) managed to get a bill passed out of the Senate, only to see it killed by his own party in the House.
The Legislature finally decided to pass the largest income tax hike in the state’s history in 2011, but the money wasn’t earmarked for education.
In fact, despite $7 billion a year from the tax hike, public education saw its budget cut by $200 million last year and may see a cut twice that size this year.
Ask any state lawmaker about the state’s education funding formula and they will tell you it’s inequitable and unfair. In truth, most would be at a loss to explain how it works.
School districts with great wealth, expensive homes and commercial buildings generate more money for their schools than those that are poor or middle class.
The economic stress forces people to sell their homes and leave the state and has a similar impact on small merchants, compounding the problem over the years.
Too many school districts, in the meantime, have continued to raise teacher salaries, contending they have to compete with neighboring districts to attract quality teachers.
Despite the existing burden on property owners, Gov. Quinn and Democratic legislative leaders last year proposed shifting the burden for state teacher pensions from Illinois to downstate and suburban school districts.
The adequacy of state funding for education is no longer an issue on anyone’s list of priorities.
With the state facing financial ruin, the focus is on the pension debt.
Elected leaders, having ignored their financial obligation to support the state’s children, are magically absolved.
It’s as if deadbeat dads were forgiven because, in addition to their failure to financially support their offspring, they neglected to pay the mortgage on the house for 30 years.
In Illinois, that’s called planning for the future.
In a courtroom, it might be called negligence and breach of duty.