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School Funding: Harder Than Purvis Thought It Would Be

Beth Purvis headshot
Courtesy of Beth Purvis
Beth Purvis, Illinois Secretary of Education

This is the second part of our conversation with Beth Purvis, Illinois Secretary of Education. She led a 25-member commission over six months of meetings, trying to cure the state’s notoriously inequitable school funding structure. The commission concluded its work last week by issuing a report, but stopped short of crafting actual legislation. Purvis rarely talks to the media, but on the day the commission adjourned, she spoke for about half an hour with NPR Illinois.

Purvis: You have had the good fortune of sitting in on all I think 75 hours of the meetings…

Reporter: Was that all?

Purvis: Yes, that was all (laughing). So the draft report really is a framework. And as you know, the goal of the commission was, as the governor requested, to bring together a bipartisan, bicameral group of legislators with some governor’s appointees to be able to really address the idea of how do we fix the current Illinois school funding formula so that we have adequacy targets for every district in the state based on the needs of the students the district serves, that we have a distribution model that more equitably distributes money, especially to those districts that are farther away for their adequacy target, and also holds harmless those districts who are working very hard to adequately meet the needs of their students but after years of pro-ration just can’t afford to lose any additional dollars.

Reporter: You know, Sen. Andy Manar (D-Bunker Hill) has put out something saying the true test is going to be a bill. Do you feel bad that it’s not a bill? Did you intend to get to a bill when you first started this?

Purvis: So if you read the original letter from the governor, it very clearly asks for a report that will lead to a bill. So I’m very proud of the fact that on the date outlined in the letter, this very large group of 25 commissioners -- and again: a bicameral, bipartisan commission -- was able to put together a framework that I believe will lead to legislation. I also believe that every member of the commission wants this to be the bridge to new legislation that better meets the needs of our students.

Reporter: Did you know all along that there would be these hot potatoes like pensions and private schools that you just weren’t going to be able to fit into this?

Purvis: I think we always knew that there were going to be hot potatoes. This is a complex issue. But I think what was really exciting and refreshing is that there was no topic that was off limits. So you could have a conversation about private school tax credits. You could have a conversation about pensions. You could have a conversation about special education. You could talk about early childhood. And it was done in a respectful manner. People had opinions, and people had strong opinions, but I think the members of the commission listened to each other whether the person speaking was a part of their party or in another party. I think there was also a lot of respect in saying: These are issues that cannot be solved at this table. Doesn’t mean they can’t be solved or they shouldn’t be solved. But we also need to make sure that we are mission-driven. And that mission is to have a framework that will come up with a bipartisan, bicameral school funding bill. And so as I said in the meeting today, I stand ready, my team stands ready, to help all four caucuses in any way we can as they try to push this over the finish line.

Reporter: I think you’ve mentioned private school tax credits more on this phone call than we heard in the commission. How important is that to the governor?

Purvis: Well, I think I mentioned that actually in response to the fact that you listed it. So school choice is very important to the governor. He’s been very clear about that. I mean, when you think about even before the governor was governor, he is focused on high-quality options for schools.

Reporter: He has his name on a charter school.

Purvis: Yeah, but he’s also -- I met the governor when he and Mrs. Rauner donated money to the Chicago Public Schools for bonuses for Chicago Public School principals. So when he became governor, he talked about fixing the funding formula, ensuring that there are high quality options across the state, holding harmless school districts especially those that have suffered from proration for a number of years, and also he would love to see mandate relief as well. So these are things that he talked about before he was governor, and I know that I’ve spoken with him about all of those things since I’ve taken this position, in his goal of having high-quality options for kids from cradle to career, because the ultimate goal is that we have kids reach their 25th birthday ready to be engaged citizens with meaningful and rewarding careers.

Reporter: You know we could go off on a whole tangent here about Betsy DeVos and Donald Trump. Should we do that or not?

Purvis: No thank you!

Reporter: Okay, what’s surprised you along the way? I know most people in that room learned something about school funding that they didn’t know before, and these were people who knew a lot about school funding.

Purvis: I think what surprised me -- or maybe didn’t surprise me but that affected the way that I think -- is that we have such a diverse state that there are actually very few easy answers. Every decision that’s made, you have to understand that it may affect rural, suburban and urban kids differently. So I think what really affected me, and took root in my own learning through this process, is the complexity of the decision before us, and that we really needed to slow down and understand the implications of the interactions between the different parts of the formula.

Reporter: So this was harder than you thought it would be?

Purvis: It was harder than I thought it would be.

Reporter: If you had this to do over again, what would you do differently?

Purvis: Not much. I think we gave the legislators the information they need so that they can all make informed decisions. I think we created a space where these legislators were allowed to be in real conversations with each other. I think we gave the support to the legislators behind the scenes to be able to delve into the numbers. And I think that the governor showed a lot of wisdom in inviting the four caucuses to come together, and giving us a deadline to come up with this framework, so that they would have time as legislators to turn this into a bill.

Reporter: Okay. I appreciate you taking time to talk to me after all this long process.

Purvis: Well, I appreciate you sitting in and taking the time to really understand the complexity of the issue. So I just applaud your commitment to really understanding this.


After a long career in newspapers (Dallas Observer, The Dallas Morning News, Anchorage Daily News, Illinois Times), Dusty returned to school to get a master's degree in multimedia journalism. She began work as Education Desk reporter at NPR Illinois in September 2014.
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