Monday, February 03, 2014

Senate panel releases plans
to revamp education funding

By Jamey Dunn

After months of hearings, a bipartisan group of Illinois senators has presented its proposal to revamp the way the state divvies up its education funding.

The state’s education funding formula, which was last tweaked in the late 1990s, has long been viewed as opaque and complicated. “The law in the school code, I think it’s about 35 pages of very small text. So it’s going to be a challenge to literally start from scratch to come up with a new law that governs the formula, but that’s what we’re going to try to do in the next month,” said Democratic Sen. Andy Manar, who is chairman of the Senate Education Funding Advisory Committee. He said the panel is proposing a more streamlined plan that would put much of state education spending through a process that emphasizes financial equity among districts. General state aid, poverty grants, most special education funding, transportation grants, Chicago block grants and other spending that is doled out by category would be funneled through a single formula that focuses on the fiscal needs of each district “This is the single greatest step we could take as a state government to address inequity,” he said. “Put more of the money that we appropriate in the state budget, regardless of how much we appropriate, through the need-based lens,” he said.

The General Assembly voted in the summer to create the advisory committee. The group presented its ideas to lawmakers and Gov. Pat Quinn in the form of a report, which lays out 10 goals for education funding. The goals as stated in the report are:

  1. Make use of a single funding formula. 
  2. Provide additional funding to at-risk, special education and English-language learner students through the single formula. 
  3. Hold districts and students to higher standards. 
  4. Require districts to provide greater clarity on how funds are expended. 
  5. Guarantee that all districts receive a fair amount of minimum funding from the state. 
  6. Ensure that districts retain the same level of funding as under the current funding system for a period of time once a new funding system is adopted. 
  7. Include an accurate reflection of a district’s ability to fund education programs within the district. 
  8. Equalize taxing ability between dual districts and unit districts. 
  9. Review the financial burden placed on school districts through instructional and non-instructional mandates. 
  10. Provide additional transparency regarding the distribution of education funding. 

The group plans to emphasize equity with a focus on more sunlight in education budgeting at both the state and local levels and an assessment of costly requirements placed on schools by law. “We had significant discussion about the cost of mandates to local school districts and how we can better address those costs on the legislative level,” said Manar, who is from Bunker Hill.

The way the state distributes education funding is seen as a “third-rail” in Illinois politics because one district’s definition of equity can seem unfair to another district that is losing out on state funding under any change to the formula. The issue is often framed as a regional dispute that pits suburban schools, Chicago schools and rural and downstate schools against one another for resources.

Manar said the committee agreed on much of the plan it has proposed, but he said it would be an “overstatement” to say that there was unanimous support of every bullet point. “Believe it or not, we didn’t get into the us-versus-them ... discussion, which typically these conversations devolve into very quickly,” he said. “You could see all of the different grant programs that exist today in law that don’t go through the need lens and the equality lens, and you could say, ‘There’s special deals for just about every part of the state.’” The Illinois State Board of Education has requested $1 billion in additional spending in its budget proposal for Fiscal Year 2015.The agency asked for $879 million more in general state aid spending.

For the last three years, the state has failed to meet the $6,119-per-student foundation level. The committee report opposed that move and called for the foundation level to eventually be funded at the $8,672-per-pupil level recommended by the Education Funding Advisory Board. But Manar said the group focused “almost exclusively” on “how money is disturbed rather than how much is distributed.” It seems the panel is trying to focus on the potentially possible. With the temporary state income tax increase set to begin stepping down during the second half of Fiscal Year 2015, a large increase to state education spending appears highly unlikely. In fact, additional cuts, or at least another year of the foundation level falling short, seem probable.

 “We believe that while we could have a rigorous debate about the levels [at which] we fund schools, we’re never going to have that debate until we get the distribution formula right,” Manar said. “And that means people can agree that it’s attached to priorities, that it addresses where the needs are in the state and that it is something that we can all believe is working again for the state.”

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