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Our View: School funding reform incomplete without tax relief

Until they pass a plan that allows for property tax relief, state lawmakers haven’t truly reformed how public schools are funded.

If the new school funding formula approved by state legislators and signed by Gov. Bruce Rauner this week works as advertised, some of the state’s children should be helped.

Real school finance reform, however, requires more than just changing how state money is allocated. It requires lower property taxes and a plan to consolidate several of Illinois’ more than 800 school districts.

Local schools account for about 70 percent of the average property tax bill. Although officials in other units of government regularly talk of freezing or reducing the property tax they collect, school district officials generally fight any such proposal as not being feasible.

The contracts for the teachers and administrators, pension obligations and late payments from the state simply don’t allow for anything but year after year of increases, they say.

Officials generally resist school district consolidation efforts on similar grounds – they contend labor contracts would get in the way, and say that there’s simply no way anything could ever be changed.

But the more the property tax burden on homeowners continues to increase, the more it becomes clear the status quo must change. Until it does, Illinois will continue to be at a disadvantage compared with neighboring states.

Although it falls short of offering any relief to property owners, Senate Bill 1947, the spending plan Rauner signed Thursday, does include some needed reforms. It institutes a school funding formula that allocates more money for districts with lower levels of per-pupil spending without taking money away from wealthier districts.

It also includes a private-school scholarship plan championed by Rauner. The program is designed to allow students from families earning up to three times the poverty level ($73,000 a year for a family of four) to seek scholarships to pay for private school tuition. Businesses will receive 75 cents in tax credits for every $1 they contribute to a scholarship fund. The tax credits are to expire in five years.

We support the idea of giving children an option to escape failing schools. We will wait to see how effectively state government will administer and execute this new initiative.

The $250 million block grant for Chicago Public Schools was left intact, a bargain that Rauner and the Republicans struck with the majority Democrats in the Legislature to ensure that schools would receive state funding without too much more delay. This special carve-out for CPS, which can be spent however the district chooses, is one of the worst aspects of this plan.

This bill made some changes in the name of fairness. But it is not enough reform in and of itself.

The issue should be revisited next year.

Homeowners need property tax relief and fewer units of government.

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