- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 6, 2017

September 5, 2017

The (Champaign) News-Gazette

Education compromised?

What’s fair for one - the Chicago school district - should be fair for all - the rest of the school districts in Illinois’ 102 counties.

There’s a lot to dislike in the new compromise K-12 education financial formula law that passed with overwhelmingly bipartisan support and was signed into law last week by Gov. Bruce Rauner.

That’s why the groundbreaking legislation - one that adopts an evidence-based model that ensures lower-income schools get increased state aid - was described as compromise legislation. Getting something required giving something.

But now many of those people who lambasted Gov. Rauner for not compromising and signing the Democratic version of Senate Bill 1 now are angry that a real compromise version of the legislation was passed by legislators and signed into law.

The most bitter comments have come from critics of the private school scholarship tax credit, the provision that allow donors to underwrite scholarships that will be used to help low-income children to attend private schools. The teachers’ unions have been nothing less than vitriolic in their condemnation of the program that lets poor children escape failing public schools and get a better education in private schools.

But there are other grounds for complaints as well, including provisions allowing mandate relief in K-12 schools outside of Cook County.

There are few things, in general, that local officials resent more than unfunded mandates the Legislature places on local governments. Local officials have long argued that the state should pay for those programs it requires or leave local officials alone.

But legislators, as is their habit, often appease interests groups by granting mandate requests they know the state won’t have to pay for.

It’s a no-win game for local officials. They can’t stop mandates from being imposed from above and, at the same time, are unable to avoid the requirement to pay for them out of their limited funds.

That’s why it was good news that the K-12 school funding reform bill provides some mandate relief, although not nearly enough.

K-12 schools outside Chicago should not rest until they obtain the same kind of mandate relief Chicago schools have long enjoyed. That, of course, is a non-starter with Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan, who knows his labor union donors support mandates that push extra costs on school districts. That kind of politicized thinking ignores the reality that school districts exist to serve children’s educational needs, not provide jobs that needlessly divert scarce financial resources away from education. That they provide many jobs is inevitable - and certainly welcome - but incidental to the core mission of the public schools.

But whatever mandate relief is forthcoming is welcome nonetheless.

Included in the legislation is a waiver that allows school districts to contract with a third party offering driver’s education services without seeking permission from the state. The legislation also implements what it calls a “streamlined waiver process” by which local schools can ask to be excused from specific mandates. Taxpayers will have to wait to see how well that process works.

Most controversial is a provision that allows local school districts to reduce physical education requirements to a “minimum of three days a week.” It also allows schools to exempt seventh- through 12-graders from PE if they participate in athletics. The old rule extended only to 11th- and 12th-graders. It also removes a six-year limitation on the number of years a school district may have a PE mandate waver.

The American Heart Association, not without cause, objects to the PE waiver on the grounds that it will have “a detrimental impact on our children.”

And here’s one more thing for legislators to consider - if schools could save money by modifying or limiting the unfunded mandates the new education bill left out of reach, they would have more money to focus on education, including physical education. That’s another good reason why non-Chicago school districts should operate under the same mandate-relief umbrella that the Chicago schools do.


August 30, 2017

Sauk Valley Media

Legislators finally do their jobs on school funding

A day late and a dollar short is no way to run state government. But again and again, including the school funding overhaul, that’s how Illinois politicians choose to operate.

When all is said and done regarding Aug. 29th’s passage by the state Legislature of Illinois’ school funding overhaul, what will there be left to say?

Perhaps we should cheer lawmakers and Gov. Bruce Rauner for finally accomplishing what they should have completed by May 31. They’re only 3 months late doing their jobs!

As vital state money is poised to again flow to local schools, the politics of it all leaves us frustrated. And we’re not the only ones.

It all boils down to this: Four powerful men (House and Senate majority and minority leaders) getting together behind closed doors to hammer out an agreement in secret that everyone else had to take or leave.

With the school year already well underway, and no state money being sent to schools, enormous pressure was put on lawmakers to go along with the deal, and enough of them did so to make it happen.

But remember that the state budget, approved July 6, included the stipulation that state money could not be distributed to schools until a new formula was approved.

So this manufactured, man-made crisis didn’t have to happen, and shouldn’t have happened.

We hope local schools receive some added benefit from the compromise legislation, above and beyond receiving their payments on time.

We say the Legislature and the governor had better get their acts together and do a better job serving the needs of the people - people who have been blithely ignored by politician after politician.

In the real world, you don’t last long by not doing your work on time, or by leaving a lot of it undone.

By the way, the next confluence of the real and political worlds isn’t that far away. It will happen next year. It’s called an election.


August 31, 2017

Chicago Sun-Times

Two big reasons to stand up for Lake Michigan

The Great Lakes have a new resident, brachionus leydigii, but nobody’s rolling out the welcome mat.

Although the species of microscopic zooplankton may prove to be harmless, it’s yet another non-native species invading and possibly threatening our waters.

Nor should we be pleased that an invasive Asian carp recently was caught in the Little Calumet River just nine miles away from Lake Michigan, evidently bypassing barriers engineers have built to keep the fish out. Should Asian carp actually make their way into Lake Michigan, they could further upset, and potentially topple, the native ecosystem.

Both worrisome developments should spur us to pick up our game in protecting the Great Lakes from aquatic invaders.

Instead, key leaders in Congress and Springfield oppose doing more to protect the Great Lakes. They balk at the cost, and fear that greater lake protections would hamper the shipping industry.

That’s a dangerously shortsighted view.

Commercial fishing, boating and recreational activities pour $62 billion a year into the Great Lakes economy, by some estimates, and those industries could be hurt badly if Asian carp make their way into the lake. Lake Michigan is arguably Chicago’s single greatest asset - the very reason the city was established here - and it requires stronger protections, not weaker.

In May, a U.S. Senate committee approved a bill that would weaken regulations designed to keep international ships from bringing invasive organisms to the Great Lakes in ballast water, which ships take on and pump out to improve stability. Ballast water already has dumped the quagga and zebra mussels in the lakes, and those creatures constantly block intake pipes for Chicago’s drinking water - an expensive problem.

Ballast water also, in all probability, explains how brachionus leydigii hitchhiked its way here. Weaker regulations would open the door for more unwanted aquatic arrivals.

Meanwhile in Springfield, the Rauner administration opposes a $275 million plan by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to keep Asian carp out of Lake Michigan by adding electric and sound barriers to existing defenses at the Brandon Road Lock and Dam on the Des Plaines River near Joliet.

If Rauner believes the state’s share of the construction cost is too high - $95 million, as estimated by the state - and the barrier would hurt the barge industry, he should present his own plan to keep the carp out.

Joel Brammeier, president and CEO of the Alliance for the Great Lakes, says he is baffled by the Rauner administration’s estimates of the costs and of the negative impact on the economy. In truth, he says, the state’s share of the cost would be far less than $95 million and any shipping delays would be minimal.

But the best argument for taking action is this: Once Asian carp or other invasive species make their way into the Great Lakes, there’s no getting them out. And that could lead to a potentially devastating series of events, with aquatic food chains breaking, the fishing industry paying the price and our crown jewel lake - a haven for tourists and recreational fishermen alike - thrown into disarray.

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