SPRINGFIELD – A proposal to dramatically overhaul the state's school funding formula and allocate more money to poorer districts moved ahead in the Illinois Senate on Tuesday. The regionally divisive issue, however, likely faces a tough road in gaining support from both parties in both chambers.
The bill, sponsored by Democratic state Sen. Andy Manar, would be a significant shift from the current method that factors in a district's poverty for some types of state aid but not others.
With numbers still being tallied by the State Board of Education that would indicate the expected gains and losses to specific districts, state Sen. Matt Murphy, a Palatine Republican, questioned if lawmakers were taking a leap "where we don't know where we're going to land."
"How do I know whether this is the right thing to do for the people that sent me here?" Murphy asked.
After a nearly three-hour subcommittee debate, the issue was sent by a party line vote to another Senate committee, where it must be approved before it can advance to the chamber floor.
Under the plan, 92 percent of total state education funding would be distributed by factoring in districts' poverty levels, accounting for low-income students using a weighted formula. The legislation also uses the number of students receiving free and reduced-priced lunches to determine who qualifies for additional low income dollars, which Manar says is in practice with most other states.
Only specialized programs for special education and early childhood education would be exempted from the formula. And, for the first time in decades, funding for Chicago Public Schools would be treated under the same formula as the rest of the state.
"Let's change the law based on the needs of our state today," Manar, of Bunker Hill, told committee members.
David Lett, superintendent of schools in the central Illinois town of Pana, told the board that his district has one-third of the available funds to spend per student compared to Seneca, about 150 miles to the north.
"Why the disparity?" he asked.
Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn, who made education funding a cornerstone of his March budget address, said Tuesday he is "interested" in the measure, but didn't take a position on it.
As it stands now, Illinois schools get state money in a variety of ways. One component, general state aid – the money used to offset the basic cost of educating students – is based on a formula that factors in poverty levels. This year, less than 45 percent of the $6.7 billion the state spent on preschool through 12th-grade education was on general state aid.
But districts also get grants to use on programs such as special education, transportation and vocational training, which don't factor in poverty. Districts must submit expense claims for those programs and are reimbursed based on the number of students they serve.
The exception is Chicago, which receives a percentage of all state education dollars to spend at its own discretion. As a result, critics charge, it has received hundreds of millions more than if it were held to the same standard as other districts.
Since the last time the state's school funding formula was changed in 1997, increases to spending on specialized programs have outpaced increases to general state aid – resulting in the poorest districts often hurting the most.
Meanwhile, an increasing deficit and a growing unfunded pension liability diverted money from schools and social services, exacerbating the problems.
Manar says he intentionally brought the bill forward early in the spring session for greater scrutiny.
"We're open to changes in the bill that will lead toward greater equity, which is our goal," he said.