Herald-Whig View

Lawmakers step up to plate for schools

Posted: Aug. 31, 2017 11:45 am

SCHOOL administrators across Illinois can finally breathe a sigh of relief now that the governor and state legislators have ended their weeks-long game of political chess and agreed to much-needed education funding reform legislation.

Both the House and Senate approved a compromise education funding bill this week, and Gov. Bruce Rauner has vowed to sign it. With some school districts threatening to close by Thanksgiving, or before, if state aid payments did not resume, neither side wanted to bear the blame for the disruption those closings would cause with an election year looming.

The result was a compromise, an all-too-rare occurrence in Springfield these days. Senate Bill 1947 was ushered through both houses in lightning speed with schools already in session, September approaching and pressure rising. While not perfect, it is a step in the right direction.

Lawmakers from both parties agree that Illinois' current 20-year-old funding formula is clearly inequitable, but a solution has been elusive. The formula has forced districts to rely heavily on property taxes to fund schools, creating the largest disparity in per-student funding in the nation.

Some wealthier districts have been able to spend four times more per student than districts with less property tax wealth. Rural districts, like many in West-Central Illinois, have operated at a financial disadvantage.

The state budget approved in July required for the first time that the formula be changed to distribute K-12 education funding through an evidence-based funding formula, and provided an additional $350 million to help pay for it.

However, Democrats tied school funding to formula reform and held on to Senate Bill 1 from the time it passed in May until another school year was about to begin. In return, the Republican governor attempted to rewrite the legislation needed to distribute education funding with his amendatory veto, but it gained little support.

In the end, the legislation approved this week largely resembles Senate Bill 1. It requires the state to determine how much money each district needs to adequately educate its students, taking into consideration 27 evidence-based factors, including the number who live in poverty or who need special education services.

The state will then look at how much money the district is able to generate from property taxes, and direct state aid first to districts that need the most money to reach their per-student spending target. Districts are guaranteed to never receive less money than the year before.

While hard numbers are not available, an earlier analysis of Senate Bill 1 showed Quincy Public Schools, where 60 percent of the more than 6,300 students enrolled last school year were classified as low income, would receive an additional $418,536 in state aid. Another model for Senate Bill 1947 has QPS gaining $414,094.

The legislation is not without controversy, however.

It provides $75 million in tax credits for five years for people who contribute to private school scholarships for low-income students. The proposal was backed by Rauner and many Republicans, but opposed by many public school superintendents who fear it could create an uneven playing field and lead to losing students to private schools.

In addition, Senate Bill 1947 provides even more aid to Chicago Public Schools than Senate Bill 1, which had been a sticking point with the governor's office, along with money to help CPS make payments to its teacher pension funds, like the state does for other districts.

Moreover, it gives districts relief from some state mandates, such as allowing them to offer fewer days of physical education each week and to allow private companies to offer driver's education training, which already is being done in many schools, including Quincy.

Most important, lawmakers have taken the necessary steps to offer financial certainty to school districts across the state for this school year and to finally agree on a long-sought plan to more equitably fund education in the future.

Clearly, bipartisan victories such as this have been rare in Springfield in recent years. We strongly encourage lawmakers to continue to collaborate and compromise. Only by doing that can Illinois successfully address a long list of critical issues.