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One Small Step For Big School Funding Reform

Text photo of Rep. Will Davis' bill

State Rep. Will Davis filed a school funding reform package last week that promises to makes school funding in Illinois more equitable. How much will it cost? How much will each school district gain or lose? Is Davis even going to call the bill for a committee hearing? All good questions with no firm answers.

There’s nothing pretty about the plan Illinois currently uses to fund elementary and secondary schools. It’s overly-complicated, underfunded, and produces district budgets that are shamefully lopsided. Some schools scrape by on $7,000 per student per year, while others lavishly spend quadruple that amount.

Over the two decades this plan has been in place, various lawmakers have tried to fix it -- most recently, a bipartisan, bicameral commission established by Gov. Bruce Rauner.

Rep. Will Davis (D-Homewood) was a member of that commission, and last week, he filed a bill that had been suggested to the commission by the Illinois School Management Alliance. Davis filed a similar bill last session, so I asked him how the two compared.

“It sets the stage for a complete reformation of how we fund schools here in the state of Illinois, so it uses the previous bill as essentially the template," Davis said. "It has some technical tweaks to it that have been based on the funding reform commission conversation that we have had, but it still is an opportunity for us to continue to add, change, whatever we need to do moving forward.”

The proposal Davis filed doesn’t incorporate some of the biggest changes the commission made in its final meetings. He says it’s a rough draft, not a finished product. Davis’s bill also didn’t come with the handout that normally accompanies a school funding measure: a spreadsheet, showing how many state dollars each of the 852 different districts would gain or lose.

“Have we already run the numbers? I have not asked the State Board of Education to officially run the numbers based on this bill, the way it was filed," he said. "I know we had what I will call some 'ghost runs' from the previous bill that tried to take a cross section of districts -- suburban, rural and urban -- that fell into the variety of tiers as the bill lays out, just to get some sense of how the numbers would fall. But that was just kind of based on some conceptual ideas of the bill.

"But have I asked the state board to officially run the numbers? No, and I’m not sure when or if I’m going to ask them to do that because again, I don’t think what I filed is the finished product. And I would prefer  to kind of wait till we get more toward the finished product, because at this point, a tweak here or there or a change here or there could mean a district falls in or out of a particular tier. I’m not trying to set the stage for where somebody simply examines the numbers and says well my district loses, therefore [I can’t support the bill.] So I’d prefer to wait for that to happen, just so I can get feedback from some of the other members.

"A few of the Republican members have pledged to work with me to see if there’s a way we can come up with a final product," Davis said. "So I want to allow that process to work. I want to appreciate the bi-partisanship of what we’re trying to do.

"As you’ve looked at the bill that I filed, my chief co-sponsor is Rep. Bob Pritchard, the Republican spokesperson on the Appropriations Committee. So I know he’s committed to doing this. Rep. SheriJesiel has also come to me and said, ‘I want to work with you on this to see if we can get something moving forward,’ as well as many on the Democratic side, and one I’ll say in particular is Rep. LindaChapaLaVia, who chaired the Appropriations Committee at one point, before I became the chair. So there is bipartisan desire to try to move something forward. So again, running numbers I know would kind of upset the apple cart a little bit, so we definitely want to wait before we officially ask the state board to run numbers.”

The "ghost runs" Davis mentioned -- those came from Beth Purvis, Rauner’s education secretary. She ran the funding commission, and came up with the notion of testing a new funding mechanism purely by its concepts. Davis -- who has served in the legislature since 2003 -- said that’s one idea that has not been tried before.

“I wouldn’t disagree with you,” Davis said. “One of the pieces that could have helped or determined how quickly you get to adequacy of course is how much money you’re willing to put in. And whatever that amount was put into the ghost run, clearly, in my opinion, was not enough money.”

That amount was $250 million. It’s a number grounded in reality, because that’s what lawmakers added to school funding last year. Known as the “poverty grant,” it’s the Band-Aid that was applied after the Rauner administration tried pouring cash into the current school funding plan. The General Assembly had been "pro-rating," or shorting schools for years, and the administration assumed that giving schools every dollar the state had promised would fix things. Instead, it just revealed how flawed the current formula is.

Davis’s bill, and the commission’s report, propose a totally different funding recipe. But here’s the catch: No matter how equitable and noble it is, this new funding mechanism will apply only to new dollars. Every district, even the ones spending $30,000 per student, will continue to get its current level of state aid.

Davis filed a version of this bill last session, but never even called it in a committee. He’s put a bit of fanfare around this one -- via a press release from an advocacy group -- but he’s not planning to advance it anytime soon.

Look for another school funding proposal -- probably with bipartisan sponsors -- to be filed in the Senate.

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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