Tuesday, May 10, 2011

House education budget would delay some cuts

By Jamey Dunn

An Illinois House committee found a compromise on education cuts that members from both parties could back: Put off potential reductions in general state aid until the end of next fiscal year.

The Illinois House committee  tasked with producing the chamber's education budget set the goal of trimming Gov. Pat Quinn’s proposed education spending from about $7.6 billion to about $6.9 billion, though members acknowledge that after input from the Senate, the final spending number could be more than their proposal.

The House budget, which the committee approved today, does restore Quinn’s controversial proposed cut to transportation funding and even increases transportation spending levels over the current fiscal year. Rep. Roger Eddy, the minority spokesperson on the committee, noted that transportation funding was cut from $335 million in fiscal year 2010 to $270 million in the current fiscal year. Quinn called for another reduction next fiscal year, which would put transportation spending at $175 million. The House is proposing $295 million to get children to school.

“However, it is after that line item took a rather severe decrease. … So the increase in dollars to that line, while it helps restore some of the funding, does not restore it to the 100 percent funding that was requested or actually recommended by [the Illinois State Board of Education]. … Certainly that will help school districts, ” said Eddy, a Hutsonville Republican who also is a school superintendent.

The plan calls for a 5 percent cut — $17 million — to early childhood education. Hanke Gratteau, vice president of public affairs for the nonprofit Ounce of Prevention Fund, said that if lawmakers’ claims that they want to base the budget this year on proven results are true, then “a program that actually has shown really proven results both for children and for taxpayers” is not the place to cut. She pointed to studies that have found that quality early childhood education can greatly increases students’ chances at later success, as well as decrease their chances of being incarcerated as adults. She also voiced concerns about the thousands of children on preschool waiting lists across the state.

The committee also approved a 3 percent reduction to general state aid to schools. Quinn called for an increase to general state aid of about $260 million, which would bump the foundation level payment that each school receives per student each year to $6,267 from $6,119. The House’s plan would result in about a $152 million reduction from current funding levels, but Eddy said it could be pushed to the end of the next fiscal year. If additional revenues beyond the House’s estimates come in because of an economic recovery or other factors, that money could be used to reduce or stave off the cut.

“If there’s not supplemental funding, at some point or another next year, [Fiscal Year] 12, toward the end of the year, districts would get less money in general state aid,” Eddy said. He said that because general state aid supports several areas of education funding, a reduction to the foundation level would be avoided, and the cut could be spread in an even way so no districts become substantial winners or losers. Eddy said under the plan, any additional money would be split evenly between general aid and transportation funding.

When asked if delaying cuts to education was fair to other areas of government that are also having to make hard choices, , such as human services, Eddy said that there are “real cuts” in his committee's budget. “There’s $177 million less in that budget, in education, than there were in FY 11. So the cuts are real. And there might not be supplemental money, and if there’s not supplemental money. then school districts will receive less [general state aid] money next year.”

Eddy said a possible silver lining for school districts planning their budgets is that the plan doesn’t promise money the state doesn’t have. “We can all take a little bit of solace in the fact that these are real dollars that are likely to be available, as compared to past budgets, where there were appropriation increases and school districts just didn’t see the money.”

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