Jim Dey: Fixing state school funding a 'monumental task'

State legislators quiver in fear when they confront tough issues in an election year. So state Sen. Andy Manar, a Democrat from the Macoupin County community of Bunker Hill, recently shook the state's political landscape by releasing a bipartisan report calling for dramatic changes aimed at correcting inequities in state school funding.

Despite proposing what he calls the "monumental task" of revising K-12 spending, Manar said he's confident the Legislature will act if "we expose the flaws in the (current) distribution formula" and "put together realistic recommendations to fix the problem."

"If we do those two things, we will be successful in passing a bill," said Manar, who wants at least to have pieces of a bill made public by March 1 so he can "put them out for debate and criticism."

The state is spending $6.7 billion in the 2013-14 fiscal year on K-12 education. How it's spent — its various formulas that determine who gets what — is hideously complicated, so byzantine that most legislators have little idea how it works.

"There are probably less than 10 people in Springfield who understand our school funding formula," said state Sen. Jason Barickman, a Bloomington Republican who served on Manar's committee.

That's no accident. In Springfield, knowledge is power and those who know what goes into the various formulas also understand how much money comes out and, most important, where it goes.

The report's dramatic recommendation — a near-complete revision of the status quo — drew cheers from many, including former Gov. Jim Edgar. Now affiliated with the University of Illinois Institute on Government and Public Affairs, Edgar wouldn't predict quick action by legislators but said "the key is to get the process started."

"(Passing legislation) is always an iffy thing, and you've got winners and losers," he said, suggesting it "may take a year or two" to pass a bill.

The General Assembly is riven with factions fighting for the biggest piece of the school funding pie. Sometimes, downstate and Chicago join forces against the suburbs. Sometimes it's the suburbs and downstate against Chicago.

Sometimes — like on transportation funding — it's Chicago and the suburbs versus downstate.

State Rep. Chad Hays, a Catlin Republican, said downstate schools haul students long distances over rougher roads. When their buses wear out, he said, they often buy used buses from suburban districts.

"Why? They're in spectacular shape because they're not driven over the same roads," he said.

Since politics frequently trumps policy in Illinois, the key question is whether the major domos in the General Assembly — House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton, both Chicago Democrats — are interested in changing the status quo.

One tell is the makeup of the special committee that investigated the subject. It was supposed to be a joint House/Senate committee, but Madigan declined to participate.

"Does that tell you something?" Hays asked.

Downstate and suburban legislators say Chicago benefits under the current formulas, and they've released a report that supports that claim. It came in response to Speaker Madigan's complaint last year that suburban and downstate school districts get a "free lunch" because Chicago taxpayers fund Chicago teachers pensions while all state taxpayers contribute to the pensions of downstate and suburban teachers.

That's true. Downstate and suburban school districts benefited to the tune of $104 million in the 2012-13 fiscal year.

But the report also disclosed that Chicago schools made up that shortfall and more by swallowing up large sums of state dollars set aside for special categories including early childhood funding, poverty grants and special education.

With just 18 percent of the state's school enrollment, Chicago schools get 37 percent of early childhood money, 47 percent of poverty grant money and 30 percent of special education money. All told, the Senate GOP report said, Chicago received $600 million-plus more than downstate and the suburbs in FY 2012 on a per-student basis through special formulas that funneled money to the state's most powerful political entity.

The Manar report proposes to upend that status quo, or at least it says it does.

It recommends that 96 percent of state funding go through a single formula. Ominously for downstaters, it would include transportation funding.

It also recommends replacing six special funding categories now in place with a single formula for three categories of students — at-risk, special education and English-language learners.

Barickman said the recommendations contain "good concepts."

"But the devil is in the details," he said.

As of 2012, Illinois had 859 school districts. Among the students in those districts, 59.5 percent have special needs — special education (15.9 percent), limited-English proficiency (3.8 percent) and low-income (39.8 percent).

The state establishes minimum spending of $6,119 per student for each district, the amount of state aid being the difference between that figure and property tax revenue generated by local school districts.

Manar's committee, however, concluded that aid plus other payments generated through special formulas is insufficient to overcome the impact of revenue generated by wealthy districts. It concluded that, as a result, some students have a better educational opportunity than others.

But fixing it is easier said than done, and there are no guarantees.

"The Illinois General Assembly hasn't been able to do the easy things for a long time, let alone the hard things," said Edgar.

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

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