Retro Report: State Sen. Lightford Plans to Stop Illinois State Charter Commission’s “Hidden Agenda,” State Sen. Don Harmon Addresses Education Funding Inequity

Progress Illinois reported on an education forum held in Oak Park in October, which comprised State Sen. Kimberly Lightford, State Sen. Don Harmon and other legislators in a discussion on education reform. Although the event was two months ago, its significance will linger well into next year and beyond, making it just as newsworthy as when it was first published–which is why we’ve decided to publish it nonetheless. Only with a twist. Call it a retro report:

State Sen. Lightford: Flurry Of Charter School Bills Expected In Upcoming Legislative Sessions

By Ellyn Fortino

At an education forum in Oak Park Wednesday, State Sen. Kimberly Lightford (D-Maywood) said she plans to introduce legislation to help stop the Illinois State Charter Commission’s “hidden agenda” of expanding charter schools across the state.

The Illinois legislature set up this special charter governing body back in 2011. The commission has autonomy from the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) and the power to override local school boards if they reject applications from charter companies looking to open schools in their communities. A number of education activists have blasted the commission, saying its sole purpose is to override these charter denials.

“This independent authorizer, they’ve hired a lobbyist that has a salary, and there’s a hidden agenda,” Lightford said at the forum, held at Oak Park’s Percy Julian Middle School. “(School) funding would come away from you and go directly into this situation, and I think it’s something we all should be very mindful of.”

Lightford said she would introduce a bill at some point during next year’s legislative session that would get rid of the commission’s override powers and give charter authorizing responsibility back to ISBE.

Overall, Lightford said she expects a flurry of charter-related bills to be introduced during the upcoming legislative sessions looking to do things like raise the cap on the number of charters allowed either statewide or just in Chicago and other cities. She’s anticipating the uptick in charter bills now that a memorandum of understanding attached to the Charter School Reform Act of 2009 expired at the end of June. The memorandum prohibited proposals to change the Charter Schools Law, other than legislation to establish an independent, state-level charter school authorizing entity, which turned out to be the Illinois State Charter Commission.

“There was a memorandum around that subject not to address the words charter and school in one phrase … and that time is up,” Lightford told more than 60 people at the meeting. “I would imagine that there will probably be a significant number, more than any of us care to possibly ascertain in general assembly, of charter school bills.”

State Education Funding

State Sen. Don Harmon (D-Oak Park) and State Reps. La Shawn Ford (D-Chicago) and Camille Lilly (D-Chicago) also spoke at the forum.

Audience members told the lawmakers that they were concerned about Illinois ranking among the lowest when it comes to state education funding. Illinois has prorated the funds it provides ISBE to disperse among school districts since 2010. This year, school districts received 89 percent of the funding they would normally be entitled to under current law.

School districts also rely heavily on property taxes for funding, but those at the meeting said this leads to a great deal of funding inequality from district to district.

Ford said implementing a progressive state income tax in Illinois would be one of the best ways to bring in revenue as a means to help balance school district funding.

A progressive tax system applies higher rates to larger incomes and lower rates to smaller incomes. The state constitution currently restricts Illinois to a flat income tax, meaning all taxpayers are taxed at the same rate, 5 percent, despite how much they make. In order to amend the state constitution to allow for a progressive tax system, both the House and Senate would have to pass a resolution with supermajorities to put a referendum on the ballot seeking to change the income tax.

Harmon, who is sponsoring a progressive income tax amendment in the Senate, acknowledged that implementing this type of tax system is no easy feat.

“I don’t know … if we’re able to put this on the ballot and get the support of the voters, but it would give us a tool in our tool box to raise adequate state revenue and potentially, as Representative Ford suggested, shift the burden of education funding away from the property tax, almost inordinately, and spread it across tax bases,” Harmon told the audience.

Lightford, however, said tying the income tax issue to education funding is not the correct approach.

She pointed to the state’s temporary personal and corporate income tax hikes that were implemented in 2011 and are set to expire in 2015.

“We’ve already passed that income tax increase and what happened? Not much additional dollars went to education, let me say that,” Lightford said.

The focus, she said, should be on reforming the state’s education funding formulas and demanding that Springfield provide schools with the funding levels required by law.

“If we wanted to put the money in the right place, that’s what the income tax that we originally voted on was supposed to do, and now it’s sunsetting after four years, and now we’re saying, ‘We’ll we need this progressive tax, because we need to pay for education funding.’ Well, we needed it four year ago also,” she said.

The legislators also talked at length about the state’s $100 billion pension crisis, which among other things threatens to consume funding for education and other crucial human services.

The legislature’s pension conference committee is currently looking at a proposal estimated to save $138 million in 30 years that would change the 3 percent compound interest on cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs) to one-half of inflation. Under the plan, the COLA could not fall below 1 percent. Active public employees would also pay one percentage point less to their personal retirement.

“I support the broad parameters,” Harmon said. “We have not seen the final report from the conference committee, and we need to make sure the details match up to the conversation thus far.”

Ford, however, said he would not support any bill that reduces benefits, saying such a move would be unconstitutional.

Lightford said “it’s totally wrong” to diminish or take away retirees’ benefits, but she stopped short of saying whether or not she supports the conference committee’s framework. She did say, however, that she would vote for a pension reform package that had the backing of the Teachers’ Retirement System. VFP

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