Bill Aiming to Send More Money to Low-income Schools Pushed to Next Session

After so many years of debate over how to change up Illinois’ lopsided school-funding system, a proposal that would give more state funds to lower-income districts with greater need was pushed to next session. In turn, wealthier districts would be forced to rely more heavily on property-tax income, leading to funding losses for around half of Illinois school districts.

The bill, which passed the state Senate but didn’t make it through the House before the end of the session, will likely be brought up again next year.

It aims to funnel more state aid to districts with fewer resources. It also includes a cap on the amount of state aid that can be lost, at $1,000 per pupil.

By Meghan Boggess
Third-graders at Jefferson Elementary School, in Elmhurst School District 205, read and write during their free time on Friday, May 30. By Meghan Boggess

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Andy Manar (D-Bunker Hill), said the state’s funding formula was due for a change.

“The premise that it’s legitimate and valid to distribute money today the same way we did 17 years ago is just a premise I reject,” Manar said.

Under the bill, for example, Chicago Public Schools would be faced with cuts around $38.5 million, or $110 per student, in a district that is 85 percent low-income. While the potential cut only amounts to 2.9 percent of the CPS budget, it would still put significant strain on a district that doesn’t have extra property-tax income to fall back on.

Here’s a simplified look at how the bill works: if Illinois contained just two school districts, and both required the same amount of funding for each of their students, more state aid would be given to the district with less resources. The wealthier district would have to rely more on its property-tax income.

Manar said the state can’t continue to subsidize districts sitting on top of millions of dollars, such as Palatine School District 15, which would face an $11.1 million, or 74 percent, decrease in funding under the new funding formula and loss cap. Palatine is one of 48 districts that would benefit from the loss cap, which would prevent the district from losing an additional $175 per student.

While it may appear that some districts have money to spare, that isn’t always the case, said Dave Pruneau, Elmhurst School District 205 Superintendent. Schools receive state aid throughout the year, and as a result, they begin to build up a cash surplus between payments.

“If you track us over time you will see that it slowly erodes until the next payment,” Pruneau said. This ensures that the district doesn’t have to borrow money while waiting for state aid, which would be a losing situation for taxpayers. Still, “if you’re carrying over 50 percent…I’d say maybe that’s excess revenue.”

The funding reform would lead to more state aid for just under half of Illinois districts.

“Without additional resources there are always going to be winners and losers,” Manar said. “That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t make what I would describe as difficult choices.”

Pruneau said his district, which would face a 77 percent cut, has already been forced to scale back for three of the last five years.

“There’s not a lot of wiggle room,” Pruneau said.

With less state aid, the first things to go would likely be capital projects and maintenance. Classrooms, services and extracurricular activities would also be affected, with the possibility of less elective classes and larger classrooms.

By Meghan Boggess
By Meghan Boggess

The funding reform is a short-term solution, Pruneau said. He suggested a study on the cost of education in different regions of the state instead. “There should be a determination of what is it to give a child an equal education with equal opportunities across the state. What does it cost?”

Still, many schools, especially those in low-income areas, would benefit from the new formula.

Cicero School District 99, which is 93 percent low-income, would see a $13 million, or 15 percent, increase in state aid; J.S. Morton High School District 201, which is 89 percent low-income, would receive a 16 percent increase; and Thornton Fractional THSD 215, which is 72 percent low-income, would receive a 31 percent increase.

The proposed formula is “intended to give more money to the districts who need it most,” said Mary Fergus, Illinois State Board of Education spokeswoman.

As it was written, the bill, if passed, would have gone into effect July 2015, after which it would be phased in over several years, in hopes of easing the budgetary burden for those districts facing cuts.

Even with additional funding for poorer districts, they still may not see the money, as it has been several years since districts received their total allotted state aid, according to the ISBE. During the most recent school year, districts received just 89 percent of state aid.

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