It's time to fix state's education funding inequities

It's time to fix state's education funding inequities

By Jason Barickman

As the Illinois General Assembly returns to the Capitol, the issue of education funding remains a hot topic. A massive rewrite of the state's current school aid formula pending in the House of Representatives — Senate Bill 16 — has generated a great deal of interest and controversy.

School districts across the state are energizing to oppose the legislation in its current form, while other districts hope and pray it becomes a reality.

As the Legislature continues its discussions — some of which have been partisan, closed-door meetings — no one can tell us what will be done this year or in 2015. But we all know what should be done: Illinois needs to revise its antiquated school aid formula to better reflect the needs of our diverse state.

The so-called "Mangan Report," presented to Illinois Vision 20/20, stated that "Illinois ranks second to last in the nation for state share of public school budget revenue; as a result, significant discrepancies across the state's nearly 900 school districts exist in terms of teacher quality, building infrastructure, and educational materials, such as technology."

As a member of the Education Funding Advisory Committee, I have been honored to participate in discussions on improving the formula for our schools and our taxpayers.

Currently, Illinois sets a "foundation level" by law to guarantee a minimum funding amount per student that should be available to all schools and equalize state dollars based on a district's ability to pay. Unfortunately, political leaders have made fully funding the foundation level a low priority, instead "prorating" (cutting) it year after year.

An easy first step to correcting the funding inadequacies is to require 100 percent funding of the foundation level. I'm the co-sponsor of Senate Bill 3664 which does just that. Unfortunately, the proposal has been blocked in the Legislature.

In the long term, the education community and taxpayers should demand a more strategic approach that links best practices and evidence-based approaches to education funding mechanisms. Instead of just shifting money around to create winners and losers, Illinois should consider the educational environment which optimizes student learning, and create a funding model that encourages those behaviors in our classrooms and schools. It's a "begin with the end in mind" approach to education funding policy.

For example, the Mangan Report found that class sizes of 15 or fewer students in grades kindergarten through three are effective in increasing student achievement. If true for Illinois' students, wouldn't we want to consider a funding mechanism that encourages this staffing behavior in our schools?

Other elements of this model would include research and best practice on technology, professional development, specialist teachers, additional teachers to provide for increased teacher collaboration time, school administration and central office staffing.

I feel that the ball is moving forward on a solution to fix the education funding inequity problems in Illinois, albeit much too slowly. We need to make sure that school districts receive the financial support they need so all students have opportunities to achieve at high levels. We need to ensure that a quality education isn't determined by a student's zip code. And we need to restore taxpayer's confidence that they aren't being asked to contribute more money to a funding model that isn't working effectively or efficiently.

With leadership and bipartisan cooperation, I believe we can solve the problem that is a detriment to the social and economic health of Illinois.

Jason Barickman of Bloomington represents the 53rd Senate District.

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