Kadner: A new plan to finance the schools
By Phil Kadner email@example.com April 2, 2014 9:16PM
Summer Reyes (right) raises her hand to answer a question as she and other eighth-graders prepare for upcoming Catholic high school entrance exams and public school placement tests at St. Joseph School in Homewood. | Brett Roseman~Sun-Times Media
Updated: May 5, 2014 8:28AM
At long last, someone has proposed changing the antiquated, unfair and confusing school funding formula in Illinois.
Unfortunately, no one is certain what the proposed changes would actually mean.
The legislators supporting the funding reform legislation contend that they have simplified and streamlined the process to make it more understandable.
But after glancing at the bill, which is more than 400 pages long, I can’t figure out how it’s actually going to work. And neither do the folks at the Illinois Association of School Boards.
As for the average person, few know what the words “state school funding formula” even mean.
Simply put, it’s the way the state decides how to distribute money to your local school district. But that state money represents only 30 percent or so of all the money spent on K-12 education in Illinois.
The rest, nearly 70 percent, comes from the local property tax, creating the largest tax burden on homeowners in the entire country.
On Wednesday, state Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, announced that a Senate Education Funding Advisory Committee he chairs has come up with a plan to address problems with the existing school financing system.
The key component of the plan seems to be addressing the issue of equality. Under the current system, only 45 percent of state dollars are distributed based on a school district’s relative property wealth.
Under the proposed legislation, 96 percent of operational funding would be distributed to school districts based on their property wealth, or more accurately, their lack of same.
State Sen. Bill Cunningham, D-Chicago, reacted to the idea, as I suspect many elected officials will, with restrained optimism.
“This is a problem we all know needs to be addressed in Illinois,” Cunningham said. “There’s an inequity in the system that’s unfair to poorer school districts. But there will obviously be winners and losers under this legislation, and I want to see how the schools in my legislative district will fare.”
Cunningham said his Senate district ranges from Chicago on the northern end to Orland Park on the south.
Eventually, before they vote on any changes in the school funding formula, lawmakers will receive a financial breakdown on how the changes would impact their local school districts.
Charles McBarron, a spokesman for the Illinois Education Association, the largest teacher union in Illinois, said the effort to change the funding formula is long overdue.
“As you know, your ZIP code in this state too often determines the level of education a child receives,” McBarron said. “So from that perspective, an attempt to address the problem is long overdue and we welcome it.
“But we’re seeing the bill for the first time ourselves, so I can’t comment on the specifics. What I can say is that the current formula doesn’t work for everybody. But it’s great, really great, that someone is finally willing to take a look at aligning the funding formula to the needs of the children of this state.”
Any discussion of school funding in Illinois will eventually cause people to ask, “Whatever happened to the lottery money?”
For years, the state lottery was promoted as benefiting the public schools. And that was partially true, although largely false.
Say state lawmakers knew they could expect roughly $500 million for education from lottery sales. All of that money did go into the education fund. But the Legislature normally would increase the education budget by $1 billion a year to keep pace with inflation.
Instead, knowing that $500 million was coming in from the lottery, the lawmakers may have figured they could get away with a $250 million increase in school spending that year, or even less — allowing them to spend the remaining $750 million on other things.
Over decades, Illinois went from paying for about 48 percent of the cost of a public education to less than 30 percent of that cost — meaning that your property tax bill skyrocketed.
I have spent years writing about the problems with education funding in Illinois and followed the work of three “blue ribbon panels” that were appointed at various times to study how to improve the state’s schools.
One of them, dominated by businessmen, was specifically created to say that money wasn’t a problem. But those businessmen came back and said that without sufficiently funding the cost of public education, it wasn’t realistic to expect the schools to improve.
For the first time, they came up with a foundation level, the base-line cost of what the state should provide to educate a student in Illinois.
That was nearly 20 years ago, and the state has never fully met the foundation level, which was a considered bare minimum of what was needed. And that level was set when Illinois was relatively flush with money. As we all know, this state is now financially crippled.
So the question becomes, is any change in the school funding formula meaningful without the revenue to back it up?
Gov. Pat Quinn has proposed putting billions into the education system by making the temporary income tax increase permanent and House Speaker Mike Madigan, D-Chicago, has proposed generating $1 billion a year or more for the schools through a new income tax on millionaires.
“The problem will be creating some sort of a wall between that money and other education funding,” Cunningham said, noting the problem with the lottery that I mentioned earlier.
The Senate committee recommends that the new funding formula be designed so it does not immediately decrease funding to any school district.
But the committee emphasized that any hold-harmless provision not divert money from students and districts identified as needing additional support.
Well, that would certainly be a neat trick. Strange how trickery and school financing are so often tied together in Illinois.