Ralph Martire | School-funding formula change is proof of meaningful reform

Ralph Martire | School-funding formula change is proof of meaningful reform

Political discourse in the nation generally and our state specifically appears to have hit an all-time low.

In the Beltway, we have a president who regularly engages in character assassination against those who oppose — or even question — him. This in turn has led some of his most strident adversaries to suggest countering the president by adopting similar tactics.

Not to be outdone, most of the television campaign ads aired in the current Illinois gubernatorial race have taken the word "negative" to new highs, or lows, depending on your perspective. Sigh. All this negativity and character assassination make it harder for needed reforms to become law.

Which is a shame — because when politicians put aside sniping and toxicity to pass meaningful legislation, they actually help build a better future for everyone. For proof, look no further than Springfield and the historic change to Illinois' school-funding formula — the Evidence Based Funding for Student Success Act — that passed on a bipartisan basis last summer.

Why was this legislation historic? Well, because overnight, it transformed Illinois' school-funding formula from the worst in America — as in least fair in distribution and most inadequate in total investment — to the best. The reason for this transformation is simple: the measure ties the dollar amount taxpayers invest in schools to the cost of funding those educational practices, which the research demonstrates actually improves student achievement over time.

Contrast that to Illinois' old "foundation formula," which was never tied to any actual costs of educating students. Indeed, under that flawed, prior law, a minimum expenditure per pupil — known as the "foundation level," was simply set at a dollar amount decision makers felt the state could afford. Given Illinois' woeful fiscal condition, it's no wonder that approach led to an inadequate investment in public education.

Worse, under the old formula, the problems associated with having an inadequate level of overall school funding were compounded by a distribution model that was inequitable in application. Part of this inequity was driven by utilization of a foundation level of school funding per pupil that was the same for all districts across Illinois — irrespective of the different needs of students in widely diverse communities.

The new measure changes all that by identifying a unique amount of resources each school-district needs — called its "Adequacy Target" — to implement the evidence-based educational practices that enhance student achievement, taking into account the specific demographic profile of the student population that school district serves.

This ensures that, when fully funded, the new formula will generate an adequate total investment in public education overall, that will be distributed to all districts equitably. Hence, additional resources will automatically flow to districts with significant low-income, special-needs or English-learner populations, based on the evidence of what's necessary.

As it stands now, the new act is not fully funded. According to the Illinois State Board of Education, the evidence shows some $7 billion more must be invested in K-12 education. Recognizing that it may take years to reach full funding, the act was designed to ensure any new investments being made in the interim actually reach the schools furthest away from their respective Adequacy Targets.

Now, the really good news: After one year of implementation, the act is working exactly as intended. For instance, $395.6 million in new funding for education was distributed in the legislation's first year. Of that amount, $113.4 million — or almost 30 percent, went to the 5 percent of school districts that were furthest away from having adequate resources based on the evidence.

In fact, the distribution of new funding under the act has very closely tracked concentration of low-income and English learner students, focusing new money where it's most needed. Which means the act isn't just some feel-good construct passed for political gain — but rather real proof that elected officials can accomplish meaningful reform that actually serves the public interest, when they put partisanship aside.

Ralph Martire is executive director of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, a bipartisan fiscal policy think tank, and the Arthur Rubloff professor of public policy at Roosevelt University. Reach him at rmartire@ctbaonline.org.

Sections (2):Columns, Opinion
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