Op-Ed: Pritzker’s gamble on school funding could backfire

Gov. J.B. Pritzker is going all in on his bet that Illinois voters will back a proposal for a graduated income tax that will make it far easier for state lawmakers to raise taxes in a state beset by public corruption.

Pritzker’s budget proposal calls for spending $42 billion, but $1.4 billion of that hinges on voters approving a constitutional amendment for a progressive income tax in November. That $1.4 billion that will be held in reserve includes $150 million in evidence-based funding for public schools.

The evidence-based school funding formula was far from perfect. It included a bailout for Chicago Public Schools pensions. It failed to include significant reforms to policies that drive up the cost of education in Illinois, especially when so much of that money goes straight to pensions, essentially bypassing the classroom and the students who sit in those rooms. Despite those significant flaws, it was still a step in the right direction for the state’s public schools. Illinois schools rely on local property taxes for the bulk of their funding, which is one reason why the state has the second-highest property taxes in the nation.

Pritzker is a big proponent of education, so it is somewhat surprising he’d hold up any funding for school districts. But as he said in his address: “This budget is a bridge to the future.”

More accurately, it’s another campaign trick aimed at getting voters to back his graduated income tax – a $3 billion tax increase on those earning more than $250,000 a year. Don’t be fooled. There are far better ways to ensure public schools have the money they need to educate students. Right now, politicians seem more concerned with figuring out how to give some the nation’s highest-paid teachers more money and fatter pensions.

Pensions are a great place to start. They consume an inordinate amount of dollars that could otherwise be spent to educate students. Pension reform is a must if improving education in Illinois is the goal.

Consolidating some of the state’s more than 850 school districts would also help free up more money for classrooms. Administrative bloat diverts far too much money from student education.

High salaries for administrators also contribute to big pension payouts. One easy fix would be a ban on pension-spiking and double-dipping.

Voters need to demand reforms before giving lawmakers a blank check to raise taxes in the future. Yes, the proposed progressive tax rates would hit the state’s wealthiest first, but middle-class taxpayers will eventually be forced to pay more unless serious changes are made to the state’s costly education system.

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