Education Desk: Number Cruncher Explains School Funding

Jul 6, 2016

Jessica Handy
Credit Courtesy of Stand for Children Illinois

A big chunk of Illinois school funding is distributed through a complicated formula known as the "poverty grant." We asked a numbers interpreter to untangle it for us.

If you followed our coverage of the state budget stalemate, you might have noticed that one of the key issues was school funding. You might even recall the reason -- which is that Illinois has the most inequitable funding system in the country. A handful of lawmakers have made honest efforts to fix it (don’t worry, we're not going to rehash those proposals). But the thing is, it doesn’t seem to matter what policies are contained in a plan. Most lawmakers have only one question, and that’s how much state aid would their constituent schools gain or lose.

They find their answer in spreadsheets produced by number crunchers like Jessica Handy, the government affairs director for Stand for Children Illinois.


On her background in advanced mathematics:

"I have a degree in Spanish and history."

On typical statehouse knowledge of school funding, known as General State Aid:

"Have you heard the joke that there’s only five people in Springfield that know how the General State Aid formula works and they’re never allowed on a plane together? I would say over the last three years of funding reform, a lot of people have learned way more about the formula -- a lot of lawmakers, a lot of policy people, advocates -- than they ever thought they would learn either. So people are getting smarter about this. But just to be clear, I am not one of the five…. If I had to take the raw data and calculate how much General State Aid every district would get from scratch, I couldn’t do it.”

On the heft of the Illinois School Code:

"Probably smaller than a ‘War and Peace,’ but bigger than a Nancy Drew."

On the basics of Illinois’ education budget:

“Picture it like a pie chart. Two-thirds of it is going to General State Aid; one-quarter of it is going to mandated categoricals. Mandated categoricals are programs like special education services, transportation and  free breakfast and lunch. And then the remaining amount goes to things like early childhood education, bilingual education, and then lots of smaller programs like assessments, those kinds of things."

On the “poverty grant” portion of Illinois’ school funding formula:

“This is the formula that I know some people have read out in committees and things that make our formula sound especially complicated and it’s 294.25 plus the product of the district poverty concentration ratio squared times 2,700, all of that times the number of low-income kids….And I’ll tell you, even if you don’t understand that, a lot of people that have had maybe Algebra II understand that if there’s a squared in that graph, it’s a curve, not a straight line….. I think a lot of people can picture a curve on a graph and think about those districts that are in the middle of the curve, and how if it had been a straight line, those districts would be getting more per kid in poverty.”