Jim Dey: School funding a divisive issue in Illinois

Jim Dey: School funding a divisive issue in Illinois

When it comes to Illinois' antiquated and complicated public school funding formula, legislative Republicans and Democrats are in full accord.

They're agin' it.

"No one is for the status quo," said Illinois Senate Republican leader Christine Radogno of LaGrange.

But that's about where the agreement ends.

While Senate Democrats are rallying around legislation introduced by Democrat Sen. Andy Manar of Bunker Hill, Senate Republicans claim his revised formula is more complicated than the current one and funnels too much money to Chicago schools.

What's even more revealing: They don't even agree on whether the House and Senate actually are serious about taking on such a difficult issue in an election year, even if raising the issue impresses some voters.

"If this (proposal) was the real deal, you've have to have an engaged Gov. (Quinn) and an engaged (House Speaker Michael) Madigan," said state Sen. Jason Barickman, R-Bloomington.

There's no indication that either Quinn or Madigan is focused on the K-12 school funding issue. But  Manar suggested he can get their attention.

"We can always find a reason not to do it," said Manar, whose district includes Macon County. "We shouldn't be in a rush to hit the pause button simply because it's a tough issue."

Tough doesn't really begin to describe the school funding politics.

For starters, the issue's bottom-line nature — who gets how much — pits regions of Illinois, politicians within the same party and even neighboring school districts against each other.

Members of a special bipartisan Senate committee, which was led by Manar and included Barickman, spent part of last year studying the state's school funding formula with the intent of recommending changes.

The resulting report, one which Republicans said they did not help write, proposed drafting a new funding formula that emphasizes providing more state aid to school districts least able to fund their local schools.

The wealthier school districts, meaning those with stronger property tax bases, would receive less state assistance.

Manar's 400-page bill — SB 16 — calls for reducing seven existing funding categories to just three — the primary funding formula and early childhood and special-education funding. His change would result in more than 90 percent of education funds, compared with the current 44 percent, being based on need.

Under his proposal, special categories of funding — including transportation grants, Chicago block grants, supplemental grants — would be eliminated.

"We shouldn't have specialized programs that take away from the primary purpose of state funding and that are designed to serve a special constituency," Manar said.

Here's what that means in actual dollars.

The General Assembly appropriated $6.7 billion for K-12 funding for the current fiscal year that expires June 30 — 56 percent of that amount consumed by special funding categories and 44 percent for general state aid.

The current school funding formula has been in place for nearly 20 years, and, as now constituted, is an increasingly skewed mess.

In March 2013, Senate Republicans issued a report that showed how the Chicago schools benefit from special funding categories that give them the lion's share of state dollars.

The report — "Who Gets the Free Lunch?" — explained how Chicago schools collect $600 million-plus more than the rest of the state's school systems through special formulas that allocate the lion's share to them.

"The Chicago Public School system has 18 percent of (early childhood students), but gets 37 percent of early childhood dollars," the report noted.

There will definitely be winners and losers if the funding formula is changed. As a general principle, it would appear that wealthier suburban school districts will get less and districts with smaller property tax bases and higher levels of low-income students will get more.

But minority Republicans suspect that proposed changes are designed to get Chicago schools an even bigger share of state dollars than they now receive, and their concerns are heightened by Democrats' decision to draft their own bill without GOP input.

"(Partisan suspicion) is part of the problem," said Jeff Mays, president of the Illinois Business Roundtable. "If you really wanted a 'kumbaya' kind of thing, they wouldn't have cut the Rep- ublicans out of writing the bill."

Despite that, Mays, who also vice president of the school board in Quincy, said he applauds the effort to re-examine the issue because "this is a discussion the state needs to have."

He said that Republican criticism is "premature" because "we've seen how the formula has been diminished by carve-outs (for special constituencies)."

For his part, Democrat Manar said that the legislation "is not ready to be voted on" and that it is his intention to "continuously amend the bill to improve it."

People won't have to speculate for long about the impact of the revised formula of various school districts. The Illinois State Board of Education is running the proposed formula through its computers and is expected to soon reveal, perhaps as early as this week, how each school system will be affected.

Mays said that a "windfall" for Chicago would draw opposition from both suburban and downstate Democrats and Republicans. He said that he doesn't "have a clue" about how Quincy school will be affected but that the numbers will tell the tale.

"This is going to come down to a printout, and each legislator is going to vote his district," he said.

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

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