Formula for success?

Formula for success?

This state will never have enough money to support important public programs until elected officials in both parties realize the importance of creating an atmosphere that generates economic growth.

Illinois' elected leaders remain at odds over plans to rewrite the state's antiquated K-12 education funding formula, not because they don't think it's necessary but because they fear the consequences of a more egalitarian approach.

What's the problem?

The fear among legislators is that some school districts who get more than they deserve under the current approach will get less under a new one.

State Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, who has been leading efforts on the issue, last week proposed another version of the funding formula plan, one designed to ease the concerns of those who fear they will lose under a new approach.

Manar's approach meets the objections, but just for one year. He has proposed spending an additional $400 million to ensure that all school districts be "held harmless" — meaning they will get no less state money than they do now — in the first year. After that, reductions will be phased in over the next four years.

Manar's proposal is a good-faith approach to the so-called "winners and losers" arguments. But it's hard to imagine it will mollify those whose sole judgment on the issue is based on whether a new formula will provide more or less for roughly 800 school districts.

The public will know more about Manar's legislative proposal — SB 231 — after the State Board of Education runs the numbers on his plan and reports exactly how much money districts will gain or lose after the plan is fully implemented.

The ISBE ran a similar study of an earlier Manar proposal, and the reactions of local school officials were based solely on gains and losses.

Perhaps that's why Gov. Bruce Rauner has insisted that there be no winners and losers under any bill that sent to him for signing.

"What we can't have is a system where we pit school districts against one another," Rauner said.

That's a nice thought. But, unfortunately, what Illinois has now is a system where school districts are already set off against each other.

That's because only 42 cents of each state aid dollar is allocated on the basis of need. The rest is included in special funding grant categories — transportation, special education, poverty — whose allocations are skewed toward schools in Chicago.

Manar argues that nearly all of state aid money should be allocated based on need, and it's hard to dispute that proposition.

"Today's system is a web of complicated formulas that result in less than half of all state education dollars going to schools based on need — which shortchanges the neediest schools in the state," he wrote in a recent commentary on the funding question. "Reform efforts should be focused on one statewide formula that accounts for each school district's individual needs and sets up one set of rules for all schools to drive better results. We should prioritize limited state resources to bridge the gaps. No more inequity, no more special deals."

That, of course, is easy to say but hard to do, particularly so when doing the right thing could cost a school district money it wants,

Even while waiting for ISBE numbers, Manar's proposal kicked off a pension controversy because his plan calls for the state to contribute $200 million a year to the underfunded pension system for Chicago teachers.

The Chicago school system currently funds its teachers' pension program, while the state funds pensions for teachers outside Chicago.

Downstate lawmakers immediately objected to the state subsidizing Chicago teacher pensions while a spokesman for House Speaker Michael Madigan also protested, but for a different reason. Because Madigan wants to force school districts outside Chicago to fund their teachers' pensions, a proposal that would force property taxes even higher, he can't support state subsidies for Chicago teachers.

At the same time, Madigan has a House task force studying the funding formula issue, and he may have a proposal of his own to compete with that of Manar.

Both Rauner and Manar support increased state support for K-12 public schools. Indeed, it's hard to find a politician anywhere who doesn't instinctively support more money for education.

But the issue of who gets how much creates the kind of conflict that makes it hard to reach broad agreement, particularly in the midst of an ongoing budget battle. That's always going to be the case when a state has limited resources.

That's why Rauner is correct to keep pushing legislative Democrats to approve measures that would make Illinois more attractive to job creators whose investments generate the revenue necessary to support vital state programs, including education.

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Local Yocal wrote on April 11, 2016 at 9:04 am
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No,... giving away the store to corporate interests is not going to make Illinois more "job creator friendly." Properly funded schools is in itself a state-wide asset that makes Illinois liveable, the key toward economic success.