Yesterday afternoon, my second-grader got her copy of the school yearbook. She flipped back to the kindergarten class photos. “Miss Maya’s class used to have three teachers,” she observed. Now it has two. Next year, it might only have one.
This is just one effect of the current education funding crisis in Illinois. Like many states, Illinois’ current method of funding schools doesn’t even out the disparities between wealthy and poor communities. In fact, during the recession, a level cut to state education funds, called proration, aggravated the problem.
But now there’s a glimmer of hope. After 40 years of fruitless warfare over school funding, last week the Illinois General Assembly passed a new, more equitable formula for distributing education dollars. If the bill becomes law, Illinois would finally do the right and logical thing in giving money to schools: send more money to schools that need more financial help. That means schools in poor communities, where local taxes just don’t bring in much cash.
The new funding formula would examine each district carefully to determine its needs and set a target budget, called an Adequacy Target, to meet them. Current state funding each district receives would be locked in, so nobody loses money. Then each district’s combination of current state and local revenue would be measured to see how close it comes to the target. Districts would be grouped into four tiers: Tier 1 being farthest away; Tier 4 being closest. As new money enters the education funding pool, it is allocated to Tier 1—the neediest schools—first.
For years, efforts to reform the way Illinois funds its schools have been stymied by fears that any change bringing more money to poor districts would take money away from more affluent districts. The new formula ensures that no school system will lose state money. Going forward, districts that need more resources will have a much better shot at getting them.
No Community Should Give Up Resources to Provide Equity. And None Will.
“I don’t believe any community should have to give up their resources to provide equity for all,” says Kimako Patterson, superintendent of Prairie-Hills Elementary District 144 in Chicago’s south suburbs. “All children should be provided the same basic resources. Those with less resources should be provided more, but never at the detriment of others.”
Although Prairie-Hills is in the suburbs, it is not wealthy. Some students regularly start the day hungry or without uniforms. Patterson and her staff have taken money out of their own pockets to help with uniform purchases. School supplies are another big issue. “We purchase tons of school supplies every year, because we have students who will arrive in our buildings without paper, pencils or book-bags,” she says.
Currently, the only thing keeping the new formula from becoming law is Governor Bruce Rauner. The question is not just whether he will sign the bill, but whether he and the legislature can come to agreement on a budget that would send new money to schools and make the formula work.
The budget stalemate has gone on for more than two years. Rauner has held out for a variety of reforms, such as property tax relief and changes in workers’ compensation, in exchange for budget approval. While this larger drama plays on, students continue to be hurt, and the long-term economic prospects for the state—what Rauner says he’s most concerned about—continue to decline.
When Patterson was asked what parents in her district have to say about the situation, she replied, “Our parents would ask the governor how in good conscience he can advocate for all children while not ensuring that the neediest children receive the necessary resources? At what point will we put aside adult differences and really focus on what is in the best interest of students instead of spouting rhetoric?”
Patterson and her parents are right. It’s time for the adults in the room to put on their big-people pants and get the hard work done to assure that every Illinois child attends a school that is fully and fairly funded. The ball is now in Gov. Rauner’s court, and those who believe in fair funding for all our state’s kids will be watching closely to see what he does with it.