Chicago Democrats in Springfield have been claiming that downstate schools are getting a "free lunch" when it comes to education money, charging that our schools are getting more than their fair share of education dollars.
The rationale for this claim was that Chicago schools pay much more toward their pension system than do downstate school districts. It was a term coined by the House speaker for the obvious purpose of shifting costs away from the state onto cash-strapped local school districts. The goal was clearly to force downstate taxpayers to assume financial responsibility for the state's massive pension liabilities -- a debt that accumulated during his more than 30 years of leading Illinois House Democrats.
My colleagues and I decided to take an in-depth look at the issue to see if the claims of a free lunch were legitimate. They were not.
In fact, it's just the opposite. Our report found that the pension payments provided by the state to downstate school districts tell only a small part of the story. In fact, if you look overall at how school's get money in Illinois, the inescapable conclusion is that it is the Chicago Public Schools that are being served a super-sized meal of state support.
The point of this was not to ignite a regional war or to strip Chicago schools of their money. Instead, it was to put to rest a distracting and misleading argument that threatens to derail the already difficult challenge of finding a solution to the state's massive underpaying of our teacher retirement system.
Yet, as we looked at the facts, we discovered disturbing trends that all Illinois taxpayers should be aware of. For the past decade we have seen the state's General State Aid formula undermined by a massive shift in the way in which resources are allocated to local school districts.
As a lifelong educator, I know that our General State Aid formula was intended to be a "resource equalizer" that assures all students have access to a base of state support. Yet, we have discovered that, since 2000, the formula has been almost completely restyled to channel money into specific districts, rather than meet its intended purpose of equalizing resources.
Amazingly, there has never been any public debate about this shift in priorities. In fact, it occurred out of sight of the public and even of legislators. Bureaucratic decision makers who do not answer to the legislature or the public have quietly made changes in how state money is allocated. The changes have reduced the state's base foundation level grants from almost 90 percent of the state aid formula to just more than 50 percent today. At the same time, poverty grant money has soared by 432 percent and the obscure Property Tax Extension Limitation Law adjustment shot up a jaw-dropping 1,267 percent.
The deeper one digs into the figures, the worse it becomes. PTELL, intended as a modest adjustment to offset some of the effects of property tax caps, has grown into a $629 million program that channels 49 percent of its money to one school district -- Chicago.
Changes that were never approved nor even debated by the legislature have skewed the poverty grant formula to create huge discrepancies in the value placed on children in poverty. I understand that children in poverty require extra resources to reach their potential. As a teacher, I saw it firsthand. And, I also know that schools with high concentrations of poverty students face additional challenges.
But is it really fair that the Belleville schools receive about $1,350 to educate a child in poverty, while the Chicago schools get more than $2,500 for a child in similar circumstances? Is it really almost half as costly to teach a poor child in Belleville as it is in Chicago? At a minimum, shouldn't these policy decisions have been debated in the open, giving the public the chance to weigh in?
I have only scratched the surface. Similar discrepancies exist in special education funding, with early childhood money and even with the distribution of personal property replacement taxes.
We began this examination in the hopes of refuting a false claim about the downstate free lunch. But in doing so, we uncovered a far more troubling situation.
We cannot build a base of support for public education with an equalization formula that is taking Illinois down a path of increasingly unequal treatment of our students.
The facts make it clear. Illinois needs an open, honest and thorough debate over how education resources are allocated.
State Sen. Dave Luechtefeld represents the 58th District, which covers much of Southwestern Illinois. He is also an assistant Senate Republican Leader.