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Senate study pushes for school funding equity

Published: Saturday, Feb. 1, 2014 11:53 p.m. CDT
Caption
(AP file photo)
Teachers strike Jan. 12, 2012, outside Zion-Benton High School in Zion after negotiations between the teachers union and District 126 broke down. An education funding advisory committee is urging for the state's school funding formula to be changed to provide more equity to rich and poor districts across Illinois during tough economic times.

SPRINGFIELD – A new report by a state Senate education committee said that streamlining Illinois’ school funding formula would provide better equity to all districts.

According to the document released Friday evening, putting the vast majority of state funds into one pot, then dividing up resources based on need, would serve as a fairer distribution method than the current system, which factors in a district’s poverty for some types of state aid but not others and also treats funding for Chicago schools differently.

As the state grapples with an estimated loss of $1.5 billion in revenue if lawmakers allow the temporary income tax increase to expire as scheduled next January, committee members say it’s an ideal time to have a conversation about changes.

“Whatever money we have, we’d like for schools to be funded fairly,” state Sen. Dave Luechtefeld, an Okawville Republican and co-chair of the eight-member committee, said.

Overspending and a $100 billion pension shortfall put Illinois in dire financial shape in recent years, with crucial money being stripped away from schools as a backlog of bills piled up.

Since 2009, Illinois schools have seen over $800 million in cuts, according to the state Board of Education.

Democratic State Sen. Andy Manar, the education committee’s other co-chair, said he became more aware of the impact of such cuts when his son’s elementary school art class was moved to a janitor’s closet to save the Bunker Hill School District money.

As it stands now, Illinois schools get their money from the state in a variety of ways. In addition to “general state aid” – money distributed to districts to help offset the basic cost of educating students – schools get separate grant money to fund specific programs, including transportation, special education and vocational training.

While general state aid is divvied up based on districts’ respective poverty levels and various aspects to determine need, much of the other grant funding is not.

In addition, Chicago school funding is entirely different than the rest of the state. Since the mid-1990s, the city’s schools have gotten a block, or overall percentage, of available state funds based on their enrollment and need. The city can spend the money as it sees fit.

Manar argues that as times get lean, wealthier districts that have more property tax dollars going toward their schools have an advantage over the poorer districts and can more easily offset cuts in state aid.

“We’re saying that local ability to pay should be considered when grants are given,” Manar said.

The committee report – which comes after members spent six months hearing testimony from educators around the state – suggests that the vast majority of specialized programs as well as general state aid be funded through the same formula and equalized based on districts’ respective wealth. It also wants districts to detail how they are spending their state dollars in each of their schools. And the report suggests that Chicago funding should be integrated into the single-funding formula.

Manar, who will detail the report on Monday at the state Capitol, said he hopes to have school funding reform legislation filed by March.

That goal, Luechtefeld said, might be lofty, as regional and partisan interests will be fleshed out as the issue is debated, among other tax-and-spend issues this legislative session.

Education board officials say that after years of cuts they’re grateful the issue is getting attention.

“We hope that it will lead to more equitable funding for our districts,” board spokeswoman Mary Fergus said.

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Online:

Read the report at www.isbe.state.il.us .

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