In 1997, Republican Gov. Jim Edgar proposed a thoughtful, responsible plan to change the way Illinois schools are funded by raising the income tax and reducing the property tax burden.
Edgar strongly believed the best way to fund education was through the income tax – and he was right.
Sometimes, what’s past is prologue.
Last week, I set out to tackle the same issue in my annual budget address when I proposed maintaining the current income tax rate – among the lowest in the nation – to properly fund public schools, while reducing the property tax burden by providing every Illinois homeowner with a guaranteed $500 annual refund.
This tax reform is not simply a way to meet the state’s budget needs. It’s an opportunity to begin fundamentally changing the way Illinois pays for educating its children.
Right now, the education funding burden rests too much on the shoulders of homeowners, who are paying higher and higher property taxes. We’re relying on a 19th century property tax system to fund the most vital mission of the 21st century: public education, the great equalizer in our democracy and a driver of the American Dream.
The results of this 19th century system? Some of the highest local property taxes in the nation – 20 percent above the national average – and fundamentally unequal educational opportunities for kids in communities across Illinois.
The state has a constitutional obligation to properly fund education. When we don’t, homeowners pay the price today, and our children pay the price tomorrow. Failure to invest in Illinois’ children is a failure to invest in our economy.
Today, we have a historic opportunity to begin fixing an unfair and unjust system.
We would not have this opportunity if we had not done the hard work of addressing the cost drivers of the fiscal crisis I inherited. We spent the past five years repairing the damage that had been done over decades, by enacting comprehensive pension reform, slashing wasteful spending and negotiating a historic low-cost contract with public employees unions.
Thanks to these reforms, the state budget now can be balanced in a way that provides tax relief to homeowners and working families while fully meeting the state’s obligation to fund public education.
In addition to providing the most significant property tax relief in Illinois history, my plan would invest a game-changing $1.5 billion in my Birth to Five initiative, significantly increase public elementary and high school funding, and double the amount spent on college scholarships for students in need.
These historic investments build on the landmark education reform we enacted in 2011, a model for the nation, to provide stronger performance standards, prioritize performance over tenure and make schools more accountable.
Edgar was on the right track in 1997 when he tackled an arcane, inadequate system where homeowners are overburdened and children are shortchanged.
It’s time to fundamentally change a school financing method that is among the most inequitable in the nation. My budget, with the tax reform it proposes, is a big first step.
• Pat Quinn, a Chicago Democrat, is the governor of Illinois.