Lawmakers of all stripes have pledged support in recent weeks for overhauling the state’s outdated school funding formula, a nearly 30-year-old system that nearly everyone agrees penalizes students in poorer districts.
But the issue once again faces long odds in this spring’s legislative session, amid a reluctance to balance the formula by taking funds away from more well-off school districts, especially during an election year. Some lawmakers say the issue can’t be dealt with until more funds are available to distribute.
That likely ties the matter to the 8-month-old budget standoff between Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and Democratic leaders, and perhaps an agreement on restoring the state’s expired income tax hike.
“If you need votes (to approve an overhaul), it’s very difficult when you take away 30 percent of a district’s budget,” said Democratic Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie, a top lieutenant to House Speaker Michael Madigan.
Rauner, who pledged during his State of the State address last month to work with Democrats on improving education, appears to agree. “I won’t allow some school districts to give up money to give to other school districts,” he said last week.
Here are things to know about where the issue stands in the General Assembly:
Everyone agrees the state’s funding formula needs to be updated. Last year, The Education Trust, a nonpartisan advocacy group, found Illinois’ school funding system to be the nation’s most unfair. It noted that poor students receive nearly 20 percent fewer state dollars than students in wealthier districts. Most of those poorer districts are downstate.
The state’s formula was last overhauled in 1997. Since then the imbalance has increased as spending on specialized programs outpaced increases in general state aid to districts. Poorer districts don’t have the property tax base to supplement funding like some schools in suburban Chicago.
Senate President John Cullerton, like Madigan a Chicago Democrat, recently called the issue “the defining crisis of our time.” Last week, Madigan announced he was setting up a bipartisan panel to craft legislation designed to ensure equitable school funding, naming Flynn Currie to lead it.
Republican leaders are reluctant to take up the issue this spring, noting how some schools would lose dollars under current overhaul proposals. “It’s not that we don’t recognize that we need to improve school funding,” said Rep. Barb Wheeler, a Crystal Lake Republican. “We just refuse to give more into a broken system.”
Election year politics undoubtedly play a role. Touting that they’re in favor of moving fast, even without making progress, could help some lawmakers at the polls come November.
Senate Democrats have proposed two measures that address the issue.
The first, sponsored by Sen. Andy Manar of Bunker Hill, would create a need-based formula that gives schools in property-poor areas more money per student and increase funding for schools with higher than average special education students. Manar has changed his original proposal by adding a provision that considers cost of living differences across the state.
A second bill, sponsored by Cullerton and passed by the Senate last fall, addresses a number of state education issues. It would phase out the current school funding system and create a task force to make a new one.
Democrats have been pushing a number of ways to raise revenues, some of which could be dedicated to education.
As part of talks to end the budget deadlock, they support restoring a temporary income tax hike that expired and making it permanent. Rauner says he is open to discussing it, but not until Democrats approve a number of reforms that he believes will improve the state’s business climate.
Madigan also has sponsored what has been dubbed a “millionaire’s tax” — legislation to impose an additional tax on incomes over $1 million. He said the additional money would be put toward schools.
State officials already have been trying to find more school dollars. Rauner signed a bill last summer that added $269 million general state aid to pre-kindergarten through secondary education.
The Illinois State Board of Education has proposed transferring $305 million out of special education funds to boost general state aid. That measure also aims to increase school funding equity, but Democrats say they want the proposal better explained.