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State school-funding fix aimed at disparities

Published: Sunday, May 11, 2014 11:51 p.m. CDT
Caption
(AP file photo)
Shelly Ellis teaches fourth-grade students Sept. 18, 2013 in a classroom at Bement Elementary School in Bement. The geographic breakdown of impacts from a proposed overhaul of state school funding explains the divided and emotional reaction among lawmakers and educators. An analysis by the state board of education shows that in southern and central Illinois proposed changes would mean a boost in state funding for 410 of 575 school districts.

SPRINGFIELD – The regional breakdown of impacts from a proposed overhaul of state school funding explains the divided and emotional reaction it has received among lawmakers and educators – and how difficult it will be to advance such a proposal during this election year.

In southern and central Illinois, the proposed changes would mean a boost in state funding for 410 of 575 school districts, according to an analysis distributed by the Illinois State Board of Education last week.

In Cook County, 69 of 78 districts would lose funding, including Chicago Public Schools, with an estimated $28 million drop under the proposal. In Chicago's collar counties, 122 of 143 districts would see major funding cuts, many to the tune of 80 percent of current levels.

The proposal, which would require districts to demonstrate need for state aid, was welcomed by dozens of downstate superintendents who lobbied in the Capitol for the changes, which they believe will bring more equality to education across the state. It simultaneously was blasted by suburban lawmakers and superintendents who said it would lead to unfair property tax hikes to maintain education levels in their districts.

But whether the Legislature acts on the proposal or not, the state's top educators say the reaction is a net win as lawmakers learn more about the state's 17-year-old funding formula and more people realize the current disparity in school funding from one region to the next.

"We're having rich and thoughtful discussions about the have's and have not's and how money's being distributed," said state Superintendent of Education Christopher Koch. "We need this conversation."

Koch, who supports the legislation, said the state board is brainstorming a number of tweaks to make the proposal more palatable to the suburbs. One possibility, he said, is removing a requirement to comply with programs the state mandates but does not fund.

As it stands now, Illinois schools get state money in a variety of ways. General state aid – the money used to offset the basic cost of educating students – is based on a formula that factors in poverty levels. But districts also get grants for special education, transportation and vocational training that don't factor in poverty.

It is in those programs that the restructuring proposal, sponsored by Democratic state Sen. Andy Manar of Bunker Hill, would reduce funds to more wealthy districts and give it to needier districts.

Since the formula was last changed in 1997, spending increases on specialized programs have outpaced increases to general aid. Advocates of the formula change say that results in the poorest districts being hurt most during tough budget years. Districts can supplement state aid with local tax dollars, but that leads to a wide disparity in how much is spent on students from one district to another.

A look at two districts – one in downstate Pana, the other in the Chicago suburb of Barrington – shows the challenges.

Pana spent $5,186 per student on instruction last year, according to the state board. By contrast, Barrington spent $8,225 per student, though well short of the highest amount – $15,476 per student in Lake Forest.

Pana Superintendent David Lett says cuts he's overseen in recent years to offset shortfalls in state funding include a school closing, downsizing staff and eliminating programs. Under Manar's plan, the district would see a 30 percent boost in annual funding – about $1.7 million.

"I don't think we should be unduly burdened due to our poverty," Lett said.

By contrast, Barrington's community district would lose $5.3 million a year – about 80 percent of its current state funding.

"I would agree that the current way we're doing things is not making sense and it's probably not fair across the state," Superintendent Tom Leonard said. "But some of the costs we have are not the same as others."

In Barrington, he said, the starting salary for teachers is $47,000 – nearly $20,000 more than many downstate districts pay their first-year teachers. That baseline, Leonard said, helps keep the district competitive with surrounding suburban districts.

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