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School Funding Fight Heats Up


Two school funding plans progressed in the Illinois legislature Wednesday. A plan sponsored by Sen. Andy Manar was approved in the Senate, while in the House, a very similar plan sponsored by Rep. Will Davis made it through committee. Does that mean lawmakers may have finally found a way to cure the state's infamously unfair school funding structure?

Hundreds of people showed up for a rally Wednesday, with signs and T-shirts advocating for a new school funding formula. The biggest round of applause came when a group of students from Lindblom Math & Science Academy (a Chicago public school) performed a song they had created about school funding.

Inside, however, the sentiment toward Chicago Public Schools wasn't so positive. How much they should or should not get, how CPS should be treated relative to hundreds of other school districts — those questions are threatening to derail what was, until recently, a bipartisan effort to overhaul the statewide school funding formula.

Credit Dusty Rhodes / NPR Illinois
NPR Illinois
Advocates for a new school funding formula gathered at the State Capitol on Wednesday.

As the 45-minute debate wrapped up in the Senate, you could hear how the argument had depleted the patience of Senator Kimberly Lightford, a Democrat from Maywood.

“You should feel shame on yourself that this issue has gotten this far and it’s nothing you want to do but to continue to protect your categoricals, and your areas of interest, while the kids in the city of Chicago don’t even know if their school will open on time,” she said. “They’re threatening on closing three weeks before. Don’t we care about all the kids in the state of Illinois? We are not going to leave the kids in the city of Chicago high and dry. We are not going to do that. We’re going to educate them equally as well as we educate every other child in this state.”

The measure passed the senate 35 to 18 (with three members voting present), on a party line vote. Two hours later, a nearly identical plan survived a House committee, with one Republican voting in favor. So now there are two bills on the table -- three counting the one Republican Jason Barickman filed in the Senate -- but Governor Bruce Rauner has indicated he doesn't like either of them

Several factors make this issue contentious. To begin with, school funding schemes are so complicated that many legislators don't fully understand them. Making an informed decision on a new funding formula is double trouble because it means you have to understand both the current one and the proposed one. So most legislators ask for a spreadsheet that shows how much each district gains or loses. A dollar amount is easier to digest than a 500-page bill.

One problem with that shortcut is that Chicago's dollar amounts look huge compared to every other district. The second largest district in Illinois serves just one-tenth the number of students enrolled in CPS. Finding a formula that fits Chicago as well as Belleville, Carlinville, Lawrenceville, and Naperville isn't easy.

That brings us to the problem of the red numbers – districts losing dollars. Any proposal that results in red numbers is pretty much dead on arrival. So all three plans propose a "base funding minimum," which would provide each district with the same cash it received this year. The one exception is Chicago Public Schools, which for the past twenty or so years has received a block grant.

And finally, there's Illinois' ranking as the most inequitably funded school system in the nation. That's mostly because it's based on property taxes. The embarrassment of that title bad enough; the reality of what it's doing to children is worse.

Sen. Andy Manar, a Democrat from Bunker Hill, used his own family’s experience to ask colleagues to vote for his school funding reform bill.

“My children — my children — take art class in a janitor’s closet. My kids. My kids!” he said in his closing remarks. “And they’re just like hundreds of thousands of other kids in Illinois, from all parts of Illinois. Urban neighborhoods, small towns, suburban school districts, kids that have art, taking art in a janitor’s closet. That’s how much we value children?”

And while a janitor’s closet doesn't sound good, there are other schools that simply can't offer art. Or band. Or choir. Or any other extracurricular activities.

Gov. Bruce Rauner put Beth Purvis in charge of education issues for his administration. She led a commission on funding reform — a commission that spent almost a hundred hours between July and January assembling the bones of a new school funding formula.

Credit Dusty Rhodes / NPR Illinois
NPR Illinois
Beth Purvis, Illinois Secretary of Education

During a lengthy interview on Tuesday, she said she can't endorse Rep. Davis's plan in its current form, because it allows Chicago Public Schools to continue receiving automatic block grants rather than having to submit claims like all the other school districts.  

DR: Let’s clear one thing up. The block grant that they’re getting — we keep talking about it as though they don’t deserve it, so is there any implication that they’re doing anything wrong with their money or that they’re using it in some bad way?

Purvis: First of all, absolutely not. There’s no implication that CPS is misusing those funds in any way, shape or form. We believe that they’re using them for the educational costs of educating those children. The problem is that the other 854 districts in the state have to apply for reimbursement based on a veyr specific formula, and are reimbursed on that formula. The Chicago Public Schools simply gets a percentage of the mandated categoricals. So they get, as you pointed out, $250 million more than they would get if they were like the 854 other districts.

DR: Let’s also clear up one thing that other people may not realize. Chicago’s the only school district that pays their own teacher pension costs, their normal and their legacy costs. So they carry a burden that the 854 other districts don’t carry.

Purvis: I think that’s why it’s important to say that in Rep. Davis’s bill, they get credit for the pension payment and they get the block grant.

DR: Okay, the way this proposal works, every district would be assigned a local adequacy target that’s their cost of doing business, and how much money they need to pay for that. The  people who put that pension cost in there, they say that it’s part of Chicago’s cost of doing business.

Purvis: Yes. So then we believe the block grant should be taken out.

This new plan, called the “Evidence-Based Model,” is like a list of ingredients for what makes a good school (how many teachers, counselors, librarians and so forth). The Illinois State Board of Education would tally up that list for each district and say here's your “adequacy target.” That's the dollar amount the school district needs. The board would also calculate what percentage of that target the district can supply. That dollar amount is called local available resources. The state would try to cover the difference.

DR: You have your adequacy target and your local available resources. It’s a simple math difference between what you got and what you need.

Purvis: That is correct.

DR: So if you’re getting all this extra funding in your block grant, doesn’t that bring you up? Doesn’t that count as part of your …

Purvis: You’re right. There are some who argue put it in the base funding minimum (also known as the hold harmless) because that’s just going to move the Chicago Public Schools up. But because the $215 million dollars (in teacher pension normal costs), they’re getting credit for that, it’s allocated that they have to pay that, that actually creates a larger difference between their local available resources and their adequacy target, which is why we argue very much that going forward, Chicago Public Schools should no longer get that block grant. So our argument is that if we are truly being student-centered, if we are being equitable and treating all children the same, knowing that there are districts that serve a higher percentage of children who live in poverty and have much less local available resources, we believe if those districts do not get a block grant in their base funding minimum, and do not get a block grant in the mandated categoricals, neither should CPS. So by getting credit for the gap that moves the difference between their local available resources and their target, makes it larger…

DR: By how much?

Purvis: We don’t know. And that’s one of the issues. We would love for Rep. Davis to release the runs from this because right now, everything we were talking about is theoretical, because no one has seen the runs for every district that show the implications of how much every district would get. And again, the governor’s goal is that when we look at the amount of money that every district has to spend, based on their local available resources and their adequacy target and what the state gives them, that all districts will be at least held harmless, or will have increased funds for fiscal year 18.

DR: The criticism I’ve heard about the current formula — hopefully the “old” formula because we’ll get a new one…

Purvis: I am hoping it’s the old formula as well!

DR: … is that it’s several formulas that do not interlock. So when one thing changes, the other thing doesn’t necessarily change in relationship to it. Whereas this one is more connected, so that things change more together.

Purvis: So I think the goal of the new formula is really, first of all, to add more things into the integrated formula. So one of the things I like about Rep. Davis’s bill is that as we discussed in the commission, special education personnel and services for English learners are both in the integrated formula (instead of separate “categoricals”). I like it because it’s basically saying this is part of what we do — English learners and children with disabilities are part of our general ed population. And the second thing it’s saying is because everything we’re doing is going to those districts who serve the most vulnerable students that more money will go to them first. That is one of the things all three bills that are out there really embrace that. I also like the fact that we are setting an adequacy target. For the first time, we’re saying it costs more to educate a child in Peoria, on average, than it does to educate a child in Wilmette. And I think when these formulas are out, I think people are going to be pretty surprised to see the adequacy target for Wilmette should be lower.

DR: So of the three proposals out there, what are you for?

Purvis: Well, all three of these bills have some really strong parts, and all three of these bills have some places they could be improved. What I’m hoping is that we continue what occurred in the funding commission, and that we have members of the General Assembly sit down and have real conversations about how to ensure that we get the formula to the best place it can be so that it addresses adequacy and sets a target for every district in the state, so that we get every district in the state funded adequately, and that it equitably distributes those funds in a way that is fair to all 855 districts, including the Chicago Public Schools.

DR: Do you wish now that the commission had come out with its own bill?

Purvis: I’m really proud of what the commission did, and that we put together this framework. Do I wish that we had been able to move even more quickly and had a bill? Of course. I think we all do. But I do believe that all three of these bills would not be where they are today without the work of the commission. And I’m hoping that the work of the commission  can continue to guide the conversations. Sen. Manar, Sen. Barickman, Rep. Davis, Rep. Pritchard are all people who are part of the commission and have been working on school funding for a lot longer than the commission, so I’m hoping that they will continue to work together. I know that in the senate, they’re working collaboratively to try to solve some of the problems of each of the bills. So I’m looking forward to see if the Senate will come out with a unified bill.

That interview took place on Tuesday, at a time when Purvis was hopeful that senators Manar and Barickman were working in harmony. On Wednesday, it became apparent that they were not.

Manar called his bill on the Senate floor and Barickman appeared shocked: “We know there’s not an agreement between Republicans and Democrats on this one,” Barickman said. “We have gotten very close, yet we don’t have that agreement in place. So what is your intention in running this bill right now? Are you walking away from those negotiations that we’ve been having? Some of which are scheduled to continue later today? Are you done with that? Walking away and saying we don’t want to work with you Republicans anymore? Or what’s your intention in running this bill right now?”

Manar responded: “My intention is exactly what I said earlier. Time is of the essence. We have 14 days left in our session. We’ve passed two bills previously out of this chamber, and I want to pass a bill to the House, understanding that it’s probably going to change.”


As their debate continued, the temperature of their words went up.

“What we have believed is that the sponsor and that the Democrats say and have said they want to work with us and put forward a bipartisan solution on school funding reform. This isn’t it,” Barickman said. “I cannot explain why it is that the sponsor is now walking away from the very negotiations that he has suggested he is going to enter into even later today.”

Barickman's suggestion that Manar had abandoned an active collaboration didn't sit well with the Democrat.

“Um, I tried what you suggested. It’s Amendment 1 and 2 on this bill. And it doesn’t have your support either. I tried that,” Manar said. “I have never not attended a meeting that was called on school funding in the last three years. I have never not attended a meeting, a telephone call, on one side of the state to the bottom of the state to the city to the suburbs where I was about booed out of a room — I never missed a meeting to have this discussion. So I’m not going to let you get away with this idea that I’m walking away from a table. I don’t walk away from tables. We have given you ample time, in my opinion, with all due respect, to figure out what you want.”

Minutes after Manar's bill passed, the governor's office sent out a statement attributed to Purvis: "Senator Manar abandoned our bipartisan process, departing from agreements already finalized in the commission and forcing a Chicago bailout at the expense of every other school district in the state, some of which are in worse financial straits than CPS.”?

Manar's office replied with a statement saying he had not abandoned negotiations, and that the only people opposed to his bill are Rauner and his "enablers."?

Credit Dusty Rhodes / NPR Illinois
NPR Illinois
State Rep. Bob Pritchard (R-Hinckley) (right) confers with school funding experts who helped craft the plan sponsored by himself and Rep. Will Davis (D-Homewood) Wednesday evening.

Next door in the Stratton Building, the House committee carried on with a more civil tone. Republicans who voted against Davis's bill — a near copy of Manar's Senate measure — made little speeches about how they wanted to keep working on it. For all of them, the problem was Chicago Public Schools. Davis promised to return with a revised version, perhaps as early as Thursday.

Web extra: Hear another original composition by Lindblom Choir on school funding https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fYyEc780nfU

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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