On second try, House passes Illinois school funding bill

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The Illinois House approved a new school funding plan Monday that will increase state money for all districts and provide $75 million in tax credits for people who donated to private school scholarships.

Lawmakers voted 73-34 to send the legislation to the Senate, where a vote is expected Tuesday. Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, who walked the floor of the House after the vote to thank lawmakers, is expected to support it.

The evening vote came after the same measure was defeated earlier Monday largely because of objections to the tax credits raised by teacher unions. It also occurred minutes after lawmakers failed to override Rauner's changes to a separate plan preferred by the unions.

Supporters said the measure they ultimately approved is imperfect, but that it will reduce huge funding disparities between wealthy and poor school districts.

"Everybody wins in this conversation," said Democratic Rep. Will Davis, the bill's sponsor, who called the measure "historic."

Legislators from both parties have said for years that the way Illinois distributes money to schools is unfair, but they've been unable to agree to a way to change it. A budget lawmakers approved last month required for the first time that the formula be changed.

Without a new funding plan, more than 800 school districts won't get state money. School officials have said they will be able to open classrooms for the new school year, but many districts worry they will run out of money if the impasse isn't resolved soon.

The plan approved Monday was hammered out by legislative leaders in closed-door meetings over recent days. It provides money for Chicago Public Schools pension costs and creates a $75 million tax credit program for people who donate to private school scholarships.

Some of Illinois' largest teacher unions accused Rauner, who used his veto powers on an earlier school funding bill, of using students "as leverage for private school tax credits."

"Taxpayer dollars should be invested in our public school classrooms, plain and simple," Illinois Federation of Teachers President Dan Montgomery said. "The governor's proposal gives the wealthy another break while robbing our public schools of students and dollars."

The new tax credit would be worth 75 percent of a taxpayer's annual contributions to a scholarship fund, with a maximum credit of $1 million annually. The money may be donated to a specific school or "subset" of schools, but not to a specific student. The credit is a five-year pilot program.

Students receiving the scholarships must have a total household income of less than 300 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $73,000 annually for a family of four. Religious leaders, including Cardinal Blase Cupich of the Archdiocese of Chicago, have lobbied for the credit.

Earlier this year, Democrats approved separate legislation that provided money to the state's neediest districts first, and that provided additional funding to districts that serve larger numbers of students in poverty or who are English-language learners.

But Rauner used his veto authority to make changes to the legislation, saying it provided too much money to financially strapped Chicago Public Schools.

The Illinois Senate voted to override Rauner's changes, with one Republican joining majority Democrats. After putting off a vote because of leaders' negotiations on a fresh deal, the House tried unsuccessfully late Monday to follow suit. The override required a three-fifths majority, or 71 yes votes. It received 63 yes votes.

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