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Illinois' Education Funding Under Review

The Capitol
Brian Mackey/WUIS

Illinois ranks 50th among the states in the share of education funding that comes from state government. The formula used to distribute that money dates back to the '90s.

On Monday afternoon, a group of state senators began working on an update.

At a nearly three-hour hearing in the Capitol, senators heard from state education officials, union leaders, and activists. Some say Illinois doesn't spend enough on schools. Others say it just needs to allocate the money more fairly. But almost all of them agree Illinois is not where it needs to be.

The amount of money Illinois says should be the minimum per student — $6,119, which is based on poverty rates, property values, student attendance, and a host of other factors — has remained flat several years in a row.

"Our own advisory council says that we're behind by about $2,500 a child," says Robin Steans, who's with the advocacy group Advance Illinois. Wealthier districts can easily exceed that level with local property taxes. But the state has to help poorer districts meet the target.

On top of that, the state isn't even paying the full amount — money is so tight, it could only pay 89 percent last year.

"That is a problem," says Ben Schwarm, with the Illinois Association of School Boards. "The number of teachers that have been let go over the last two years is amazing," he says. "That does not help education."

Steans says it'll take a long time to get funding where it should be.

"We can't think of it as a 1- or 2-year solution, we are going to have to have a 4- or 5-, 6-, 7-year strategy in mind for how we're going to do that," she says. "And we're going to have to have the political will to not only aspire to that, but then actually see it through."

The bipartisan Senate panel is supposed to come up with ideas for improvement by February. Senators say their focus is not necessarily on how much Illinois spends on education, but rather how that money is divvied up among Illinois' 862 school districts.

Brian Mackey formerly reported on state government and politics for NPR Illinois and a dozen other public radio stations across the state. Before that, he was A&E editor at The State Journal-Register and Statehouse bureau chief for the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin.
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