Bill to change school funding formula advances; some metro-east schools support

Granite City, East St. Louis superintendents support changing school funding in Illinois

Leaders from Granite City and East St. Louis discuss their support for SB 231, which would change the formula under which state funding for schools is calculated to provide more money for impoverished schools,
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Leaders from Granite City and East St. Louis discuss their support for SB 231, which would change the formula under which state funding for schools is calculated to provide more money for impoverished schools,

As legislators were debating a bill that would significantly change the way state funding for schools is calculated, metro-east school leaders spoke in favor of the bill in Granite City.

The state Senate Executive Committee voted 10-1 in favor of sending Senate Bill 231 to the floor, but with six members voting present until they can see how the change in the formula affects schools in their districts.

The bill, proposed by state Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, changes the formula that calculates how much money per student is paid to each school district in Illinois. Manar’s formula would add much more weight to factors such as poverty and low property values, steering more money toward impoverished communities than the current formula. Manar told the committee that right now, less than half the formula is dependent on demographic factors.

Some committee members expressed concern that districts with higher property values would lose money. Manar told them there is a “hold harmless” provision so that no district would lose money for the first four years, which could cost an additional $400 million.

State Sen. David Luechtefeld, R-Okawville, is on the Executive Committee and voted “present” on the bill after lengthy debate with Manar. He said he agrees with the philosophy behind the bill, though he is curious to see the dollars and cents.

“We need to move in that direction, there’s no question about it,” he said. “I do believe the formula we’re working under is obsolete. Things have changed over the last 20 years.”

But Luechtefeld said it will be extremely difficult to change the formula, and not necessarily because of partisanship. “This is not so much a Republican-Democratic issue,” he said. “This is one where legislators will look at whether it helps my district... It’s very difficult to pass something like that.”

Some districts will make out better than others under the new formula, Luechtefeld said. A former teacher, he said he agreed that the current formula does not help the schools that need it the most. But he said he voted “present” because they are still waiting to see how much new money will have to put into the system, and where it will come from.

“If you don’t put in any new money, there’s not a lot of winners,” Luechtefeld said. And it’s likely that the biggest “losers” would be the wealthy districts in the Chicago collar counties, where property values are highest, he said.

As the committee debated, school leaders held a press conference in Granite City to show their support of the bill. Speakers included East St. Louis Superintendent Art Culver, Granite City Superintendent Jim Greenwald, Pastor Jeff Welch of the First United Presbyterian Church of Granite City and other school leaders.

On Tuesday, the state board of education released its projections of next year’s state aid based on the existing formula. It also incorporated Gov. Bruce Rauner’s proposal to end “proration” of state aid: for the last seven years, the state has withheld 9 to 11 percent of what it owes schools. Restoring that funding helped most districts offset what they might otherwise have lost in state funding this year due to the existing formula, including Granite City and East St. Louis.

Culver said East St. Louis is projected to lose nearly $900,000 in state aid under the existing formula next year, so he appreciates that proration may be eliminated. But he said it is simply putting more money into a broken system. “We don’t want to stop there, because there’s a lot more work to do,” he said. “The formula itself is a problem.”

Culver said under SB 231, funding will be more equitable, based on the needs of students rather than local property values. He said East St. Louis would expect to receive more funding, which they would use to hire more teachers and support staff, including counselors for students with disabilities or extreme emotional needs, provide art teachers in every school, librarians and other positions that have been cut due to limited funding.

Greenwald said he has spoken to legislators in both parties who agree that the existing formula does not work. “(This bill) gets resources to the districts by driving more state dollars to students who need it the most,” he said. “It’s a common-sense approach to allocating funding.”

It is not immediately known how local districts would fare under the proposed formula. Manar told the committee that he has requested projections from the Illinois State Board of Education, but has not yet received them.

Proposals to reconfigure the state funding formula have appeared before, notably last year in Senate Bill 1. Greenwald said he thinks this bill has a much better chance, having been overhauled in response to some concerns.

“A couple of years ago, the answer was absolutely no,” Greenwald said. But he said he has heard from many district leaders who support it even though they might lose funding under the new formula.

State Rep. Dwight Kay, R-Glen Carbon, said it is a “badly needed conversation.”

“We have created a formula in the state of Illinois over the years…. which is patently unfair and does not help underprivileged kids who come from areas where the tax base does not support fairly educating these kids,” Kay said. “Whether you come from Evanston or Carrollton, you are entitled to the same education in terms of funding dollars, and there should be no disparity in handing out those funds. Illinois has found ways to create exceptions, and what Manar is trying to do is balance it out and make it fair.”

Kay said he has some reservations about the bill, and wants to make sure there are ways to protect districts that have higher property values but still may be struggling in other ways. “Fair and balanced” funding also means not punishing districts that have higher property values, he said.

“This is terribly important to the kids of Illinois and a burden we all had better accept as representatives and senators,” Kay said.

Greenwald said he is “very hopeful” about the bill’s chances. “It’s gained a lot of steam since it was Senate Bill 1 a few years ago,” he said. “It’s a matter of continuing to beat the drum to let everyone know how important it is.”

If the bill cannot be enacted in time for next year, Luechtefeld said, he believes Gov. Rauner’s plan to eliminate proration at least works as a short-term fix. “It helps my district to a certain extent,” he said.

Elizabeth Donald: 618-239-2507, @BNDedonald