Reeder: Senate Republicans’ study debunks Madigan’s ‘free lunch’ accusation
By Scott Reeder firstname.lastname@example.org March 22, 2013 10:42PM
Updated: April 25, 2013 6:48AM
Chicago and downstate politicians having been fighting over state money ever since the Windy City rose from the swamps along Lake Michigan.
So, regional funding squabbles are nothing new in the Illinois General Assembly.
But to hear House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) talk, one might think a bunch of downstate yokels are chowing down on a feast and expecting Chicago to pick up the tab.
Madigan, the state’s most powerful politician, contends that downstate and suburban school districts are getting a “free lunch” when it comes to state funding of their employees’ pensions.
And, to a certain extent, he is right.
Illinois taxpayers contribute $67 more per pupil to the Illinois Teachers’ Retirement System, which serves downstate and suburban school districts, than to the Chicago Teachers’ Pension Fund, according to a study recently completed by the Illinois Senate Republican Caucus.
But there’s more to the story. The same study found that Chicago Public Schools gets a lot more state money — $2,223 more per pupil — for educating children than school districts outside of the city.
The study’s authors came up with that number by dividing the amount of state aid going to Chicago by the number of students in the school system.
They then took the aggregate amount of state money going to the 861 other Illinois school districts and divided that by the number of students in those districts. Then the downstate and suburban number was subtracted from the Chicago number.
That’s how they found the $2,223 funding disparity.
This fact has been obscured by Illinois’ extraordinarily complex education funding system that treats school districts across the Land of Lincoln differently. Six major types of state grants, for instance, are used to help finance school districts scattered across Illinois.
And that complex formula can have unfortunate outcomes.
For example, a school district educating a child living in poverty in downstate Edwardsville receives only 15 percent of the state poverty grant money that a Chicago student living under comparable circumstances would get, according to the Senate GOP study.
Perhaps not surprising, Republicans are turning the tables on Madigan and calling this disparity “Chicago’s Free Lunch.”
It’s high time that Illinois had a comprehensive look at how it spends its education dollars and what constitutes good public policy. What’s best for students, educators and taxpayers?
To be sure, Chicago Public Schools face extraordinary challenges because of the high concentrations of poverty within the city. Still, the amount of state money pouring in per pupil outpaces all other school districts across Illinois to a head-scratching degree.
On the other hand, Madigan is correct in calling for school districts to take greater responsibility, i.e., pay more, toward the retirements of their certified staff.
When a school district opts to give a superintendent or its teachers a pay raise that ultimately boosts pension costs, this translates into an unfunded mandate from the district to all state taxpayers.
Instead, Illinois should step away from its defined-benefit pension systems. That would allow school districts to make contributions to 401(k)-type retirement plans for their employees.
Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno (R-Lemont) said she doesn’t want the education funding issue to be addressed this year because it would divert attention away from the more critical task of pension reform.
The reason Republicans are bringing it up, she said, is to add greater context to the overall pension debate.
They also strongly oppose Madigan’s pension cost-shifting idea on grounds that it would result in higher property tax bills for businesses and homeowners. Most of a property tax bill in Illinois goes to school districts because the state ranks at the bottom among the 50 states in its share of paying for public education.
“I’m a social worker by training,” Radogno said. “I understand that it takes more resources to educate a child living in poverty. But that’s not the only reason Chicago gets more.
“For example, state special-education funding is based on 1995 population distributions, even though Chicago’s numbers have gone down since then. That’s not fair to suburban and downstate kids.”
Radogno said she’s bringing up the issue of education funding inequities now to shed more light on Madigan’s comments.
“I was very startled by the tone of Madigan’s comments,” she said. “It wasn’t a prudent or helpful thing for him to say. I’m not trying to start a regional fight, but we need to have a better idea where money is going.”
Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse reporter and the journalist-in-residence at the Illinois Policy Institute, a nonprofit research group that supports the free market and limited government.