Wheeler saw school funding bill as rare chance to unite House
The historic education funding reform enacted in Illinois last week is a compromise that will help students from all income levels, Rep. Keith Wheeler (R-Oswego) said as the House debated Senate Bill 1947 on Aug. 28.
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is a rare opportunity in my tenure here for us to actually look at what we can call a bipartisan success,” Wheeler said. “We haven’t done a lot of that lately. It’s time for us to step up, help our kids, help our teachers, administrators and families, and get something done for Illinois.”
SB1947, a 500-page product of bipartisan negotiations that replaced SB1, will supposedly provide money to schools across the state fairly and equitably via an evidence-based funding model. A hold-harmless clause means schools will receive at least the same amount of money as they did the year prior. State aid will be prioritized to schools that are most in need.
Chicago Public Schools (CPS) will also receive roughly $450 million more than expected from previous education proposals, and the bill contains a provision to give $75 million in tax credits to donors to scholarships that help low-income students attend private schools.
Some Democratic lawmakers found problems with the scholarship tax credit aspect of the bill because they said it lacks transparency on who would receive the credits and would be another tax break for the rich. Other legislators, like Rep. Steven Reick (R-Woodstock), wanted to allocate the money via appropriations instead of a tax credit.
“Honestly, I don’t like the tax credit program because I believe that if we are going to provide for school choice in the state … I believe that we ought to stand up and give [it] out of the money that we have appropriated here,” Reick said. “To blow a $75 million hole in the budget immediately upon passage of a budget that has cost many people their careers, I cannot support that.”
Wheeler responded by saying the intent of the scholarship program is to provide low-income students with opportunities they might otherwise not have.
“The students who receive the scholarships … we’re trying to drive these opportunities for kids who are part of potentially low-income families," he said. "That is what this is all about. This is not going to go to any high-profile, high-income families that we hear all the time that go to private school. This is a different model. This is going to low-income kids that need this kind of help, that need this kind of opportunity.”
Wheeler concluded that SB1947 presented what might be one of the few chances the House has to work together.
“The last two times I spoke on this floor, I implored us as a body to work together, to not just continue to build pressure but rather to build consensus,” Wheeler said. “In some form, I think this particular bill in front us has ... taken that shape.”
The bill passed the House on a second vote, 73 to 34, after initially failing. The Senate passed the bill the next day, 38 to 13, and Gov. Bruce Rauner signed it on Aug. 31, giving Illinois its first education funding reform in two decades.