Jim Dey: School-funding bill ends session as 'work in progress'

Jim Dey: School-funding bill ends session as 'work in progress'

Legislation that would dramatically revise Illinois' K-12 school-funding formula has made it halfway through the General Assembly. But, having passed the Illinois Senate last week, S.B. 16 faces an uncertain future in the House.

The immediate question is whether the House, led by Democratic Speaker Michael Madigan, will take up the issue in the post-election legislative session or postpone consideration until a new General Assembly convenes in January 2015.

Local Democratic state Rep. Naomi Jakobsson expressed skepticism that legislative leaders will move the bill, attributing her view to the plethora of opinions about what she calls a "work in progress."

"Many people are interested in seeing some changes in school funding, but folks have different ideas," she said.

The goal of the legislation, which is sponsored by Democratic state Sen. Andy Manar of Bunker Hill, is to change the formula so that most state aid goes to school districts with the greatest need. Currently, only 44 cents of every dollar of this year's appropriation of $6.7 billion is distributed based on need. Under Manar's legislation, 92 cents of every $1 would be need-based while the remaining 8 cents per $1 would fund early childhood education, construction projects and special education.

Republicans have complained bitterly that special funding categories that would be eliminated disproportionately benefited Chicago schools by $600 million-plus. But at least in the Senate, they remained almost uniformly opposed to Manar's bill for the same reason.

Although unhappy with the status quo, Republican state Sen. Jason Barickman said Manar's bill measures the financial need of Chicago schools differently than schools elsewhere.

"Everyone has to measure need equally," he said.

The debate over measuring need, which involves property tax value, indicates just how complicated the school funding formula is. Although it's almost certainly an exaggeration, legislators often say that there probably aren't 20 people in Springfield who understand the state's school funding formula.

But people do understand who gets how much. That's why, when the Illinois State Board of Education released tentative figures showing how the state's 800-plus school districts would be affected by the proposed legislation, superintendents rushed to study computer printouts showing the impact.

Urbana schools would gain an additional $4 million under the proposed formula change while Champaign schools would lose $700,000-plus. Danville schools would receive an additional $5 million.

As a general principle, school districts with stronger property tax bases would receive less money while less prosperous districts would receive more.

Some wealthy districts in the Chicago suburbs would be hit especially hard by the change, so much so that Manar agreed to a legislative amendment affecting 48 affluent school systems. Under the change, the legislation would put a cap of no more than a $1,000 loss per student in state aid. As an additional coping mechanism, the legislation would be phased in over three years.

Manar also has discussed allowing school districts to escape costly state mandates as a means of reducing financial pressure. He initially attached a mandate-modification amendment to S.B. 16 but said he dropped it after being persuaded that mandate relief "didn't belong in an equity bill." Manar indicated there will be separate legislation forthcoming on the mandate issue.

Manar conceded that "printout politics play in the minds of many legislators." But at the same time, he said they also are mindful of the need "to balance the needs of the district with the needs of the state."

In terms of receiving more of less state aid, the issue not only plays Republicans off against Democrats, but Chicago and downstate legislators against suburban legislators, even school systems within various legislative districts against each other.

Republican state Sen. Chapin Rose of Mahomet has 37 school systems in his district — 26 would receive more state aid and 11, less. Democratic state Sen. Michael Frerichs of Champaign has 15 districts — eight would receive more aid and seven, less. Rose voted against S.B. 16 while Frerichs voted for it.

Electoral politics also plays a role. Republicans who are hoping to defeat Manar's bid for re-election suggest his sponsorship of the school-funding bill is a purely political ploy. Manar said he's pursuing the issue because the status quo promotes unequal educational opportunities for children.

Despite Republican objections, this is a Democratic show. The Democrats control big majorities in both the Senate and House and don't need Republicans' approval or support to pass legislation. In a mostly party-line vote, The Senate passed S.B. 16 on a 32-19 vote. Interestingly, Republican leader Christine Radogno and Sen. Dave Luechtefeld, who co-chaired with Manar a bipartisan Senate committee that studied the school-funding formula, voted present on the bill, not against it.

After passing the Senate, the legislation was referred to the House Rules Committee, where it awaits an uncertain fate that Sen. Barickman said "depends on (Speaker) Madigan's approach over the summer."

Madigan spokesman Steve Brown said rhe speaker has appointed a group of Democrats to examine the issue and the legislation but wouldn't speculate on what action will follow.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette.com or at (217) 351-5369.

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