The Illinois Senate on Tuesday approved a revamp of the formula the state uses to allocate money to school districts.
The measure — which was touted by Democrats as a way to bring fairness to poor districts but criticized by Republicans as a bailout for Chicago — now goes to the House.
Senate Democrats say the school funding formula needs to be overhauled this year so it’s more equitable. Gov. Bruce Rauner says lawmakers should pass an education budget and not let the funding formula stall it.
A new school funding formula is contained in Senate Bill 231, which is sponsored by Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill. Manar says his plan would make funding more equitable by, among other things, taking into consideration a district's local property tax wealth when distributing state funds.
Currently, the amount Illinois school districts spend on education varies dramatically because as state funding has dropped, districts have become more reliant on local property taxes to cover costs.
The Senate Democrats’ Downstate Caucus, headed by Sen. Bill Haine of Alton, held a press conference Tuesday in support of Manar’s measure. Haine called it “long overdue.”
Sen. James Clayborne, D-Belleville, said the school funding formula “is a fundamental fairness and equitable issue that has existed since I’ve been here since 1995.”
Clayborne said the East St. Louis school district has needed supplemental funding from the state because of low property values there and a loss of businesses and industry.
“And that’s not fair to those children, that the businesses and their homes have been devalued, and businesses have left, because they still deserve the opportunity to be educated and be productive citizens,” Clayborne said.
Senate Republicans are critical of Manar’s plan, tweeting that it “replaces one broken formula with one that makes it worse.” The Republicans also blasted downstate Democrats for “supporting an education bill that takes money from downstate school districts.”
Haine said school districts “throughout Southern Illinois would fare well” under Manar’s plan.
Republicans say 56 percent of downstate schools would lose money under Manar’s plan in order to fund a $352 million “bailout” for Chicago Public Schools.
Rauner is pushing a plan that would increase school funding by providing the full per-pupil amount of state aid to districts for the first time in seven years. But his proposal would keep the current school funding formula largely intact.
Under Rauner's plan, Chicago Public Schools would receive about $74 million less in state aid next year compared with the current year.
Manar said his plan would ensure that school districts see no cuts over the next four years with a $400 million investment from the state.
His plan would gradually change districts’ reliance on property taxes and take local wealth into account when distributing funds. Over time, the state would shift more of its financial support toward needier districts.
Without his formula change, Manar said poorer districts would continue to suffer and “this system is going to continue to erode.”
During debate Tuesday in the Senate, Sen. Kyle McCarter, R-Lebanon, said the proposal would hurt districts that have chosen, often via referendum, to better fund their schools.
“They say, ‘You know what? We care about our kids — we’re going to give more,’” McCarter said.
Manar said the current system is unfair to poor districts because even though some of them have high property tax rates, they’re not able to generate much revenue from property taxes. He said the East St. Louis district has a high tax rate but collects a “whopping” $1,200 per student in property taxes.
“This bill will attack poverty in the classroom,” Manar said. “Our current formula doesn’t contemplate that.”
Sen. Dave Luechtefeld, R-Okawville, said Manar seems to be “headed in the right direction” with the plan. But Luechtefeld voted “present” during the roll call.
The Senate passed the measure 31-21, with three voting “present.”
Haine and Clayborne voted in favor; McCarter voted against.
Meantime, on Tuesday morning in Springfield, school superintendents warned of school closures and staff layoffs as they implored state lawmakers to pass a budget to give them certainty for the fall when the new academic year begins.
The challenge facing superintendents is that the epic partisan gridlock that has left the state without a budget for 11 months is spilling over into education, with ideological differences over how to proceed with funding.
Superintendents from districts including Kankakee, Moline, Pana and Streator expressed worry that there’s no agreement yet for next year. They say they’ll have to deplete their reserves to open this fall and that some might not make it all year.
John Pearson, the superintendent of East Alton-Wood River Community High School District 14, said the only way to balance their budget after years of cuts would be to lay off 40 percent of the staff.
The superintendents said they favored Rauner’s idea of adding more funding to schools without a formula change, and some of the Democratic state lawmakers who represent them agreed.
“Let’s give these men and women here that run our schools that have the responsibility of educating our youth, let’s give them some certainty right now moving forward,” said Rep. Dan Beiser, a Democrat from Alton.
Rauner is asking lawmakers for $55 million more to fully fund the general state aid to schools instead of prorating it like it’s been done the past seven years to balance the books.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.