This past year has been rough, thanks to not having a state budget. But at least Illinois has funded schools. For the upcoming fiscal year, that's not guaranteed.
You might think all we have to do is turn the money faucet back on. But it’s not that easy.
Lawmakers had already been arguing about how to divvy up money for schools for years -- even before Gov. Bruce Rauner was elected. Leaders from both parties long ago agreed that the state’s current funding formula is inequitable, leaving some districts scraping by with maybe $7,000 per student every year, while wealthy districts spend three times that.
What they don’t agree on is how to fix it.
We talked with the two state senators who have opposing plans to see where they stand as we count down to fiscal year’s end.
First, Senator Jason Barickman, a Republican from Bloomington, who has been touring the state with Rauner, seeking support for his bill that would fully fund schools under the current funding formula. However, Barickman also has been promoting a plan that would replace that formula with one he calls the "evidence-based model." Currently that plan is contained in a bill sponsored by Representative Will Davis, a Democrat from Homewood.
On whether he agrees that the current school funding formula needs to be fixed:
On why his proposed “evidence-based model” isn’t ready to be used in the 2016-17 school year:
"From a technical perspective, if you change the funding formula in a significant way, it’s going to require some data collection from school districts and then the integration of that data to a new model, you’re going to use computers and data and spreadsheets, where the Illinois State Board of Education is going to collect that data -- that’s going to take time -- and they’re going to integrate that data to a new funding model. I don’t know how long that takes, but it’s going to take some amount of time that we just don’t have right now.
My idea is that we focus today on how do you open the schools. And then how do you change the formula -- that’s a technical question that i think will take time. My suggestion is that we implement the evidence-based model but we don’t do it until the next school year, so the 2017-18 school year."
On Senator Andy Manar’s legislation that proposes a different funding model:
"My criticism of his legislation and some of the others that have been really advanced through one chamber or the other, is that they’re creating special deals for one school district. I talk about our eight or 900 school districts in the state and I think we need a formula that works for all of them. The Manar legislation had written into it very specifically special deals that benefit the Chicago Public School system. And again, I’m all for a statewide system that helps the kids that go to Chicago just like it helps the kids downstate where I come from, but we can’t just bail out one school system at the expense of everyone else. If you look at the evidence model, if you look at the legislation that’s ever been filed on the evidence model, there’s nothing in it that’s specific to Chicago Public Schools or any other district."
On various Democrats efforts to have the state pay CPS teacher pensions, as it does for all other school districts:
"If we’re going to talk about parity, we should talk about all those items where there is a disparate effect on Chicago and our other schools. As an example, Chicago Public Schools system has the right to contract with third-parties to provide services to the school system. So if Chicago wants to contract with a third party to provide security, grounds-keeping services or other services to the school district that are non-instructional, Chicago can do that but no other school district can. Senator Manar often talks about the fact that several years ago, he and I and others were part of a committee that studied our education formula and published a report. And in that report, it criticized the Chicago Block Grant. So why any formula today that is attempting to fix the existing one would continue to keep one of the components that we all criticized is beyond me."
State Senator Andy Manar, a Democrat from Bunker Hill, has a plan ready to go right now. It would send more funds to districts with low property values or high concentrations of poverty. But to pay for that, state aid to wealthy districts would gradually decrease -- thus the plan has been criticized for creating “winners and losers.” It has twice passed the Senate, but hasn’t been heard in the House.
On the “special deals for Chicago”:
"These things don’t drive more money to Chicago. They just do not. Republicans and the governor can keep saying it; it’s not going to make it true. We didn’t propose any changes to the Early Childhood Block Grant, for example, in Senate Bill 231, because the EFAC -- Education Funding Advisory Committee -- recommended that the Early Childhood Block Grant, for example, not have any changes to it. And Senator Barickman’s name is on that report. So this is just continuing what the EFAC committee recommended. This doesn’t drive an additional penny to Chicago. And that’s a fact, and he can say it over and over again and the governor can run around downstate and talk about special deals and poison pills and all these things, but it just doesn’t make it true. You know, there’s 104 school districts in Senate Bill 231 that gain more money per pupil than Chicago. They’re 105th on the list."
On why the House isn’t moving his bill:
"There’s always reasons not to do this: It’s too politically challenging. We have an election around the corner. We don’t have enough money. I don’t want to take a tough vote. We can just spend more money in the current system and that’s going to fix it by default. There’s always a reason why we can’t make a change that’s both this sizeable and this important at the same time. My guess is -- it’s probably all of the above in the House. It’s probably political, it’s probably recognized as being difficult, which it is, but I try to politely articulate that sooner or later, something’s going to have to change. If school districts go into default, which under the current system, we will have more go into default -- we have two-thirds deficit spending today; if we have a system that only educates certain kids to be successful and leaves countless others behind, that’s going to catch up to us in our budget as well. And I would argue that’s part of our budget challenge in Illinois is that we don’t have a system of public education that is either funded properly or equitably, which results in all kinds of costs in the state budget from Medicaid to the Department of Corrections to DHS programs, you name it. Those are cost drivers in the state budget."
On how his bill has focused the conversation on the inequities built into the current funding formula:
"This isn’t just me, you know, this is members of both the House and the Senate across the state have accurately defined the faults of the current system, whereas before, a vote for the status quo was seen as, ‘Well that’s the best we can do.’ And I think we’ve flipped that on its head. A vote for the status quo is a bad vote because it’s wasting money. And I think we’ve successfully indicted the system that will hopefully now turn into progress on changing it."