State

Illinois lawmakers refocus on possible school funding formula overhaul

State Rep. William Davis, D-East Hazel Crest, argues state budget legislation while on the House floor during session May 15 at the State Capitol in Springfield.
State Rep. William Davis, D-East Hazel Crest, argues state budget legislation while on the House floor during session May 15 at the State Capitol in Springfield.

SPRINGFIELD – With the November election behind them and a new Republican governor stepping in, Illinois lawmakers are preparing to once again take up a proposed overhaul of school funding that would direct more state money to poorer rural districts at the expense of wealthier suburban ones.

School superintendents from across the state are expected to attend an Illinois House hearing on proposed legislation Tuesday at the beginning of the Legislature’s fall veto session. Republican Gov.-elect Bruce Rauner and other Republicans have expressed concerns about the bill, which was proposed by a Democrat, passed by the Senate but not taken up last spring in the House. Top House Democrats held a series of private meetings on the issue over the summer.

Central to the legislation’s fate are two highly-charged issues: educational equity for students and the efficient use of tax dollars.

As lawmakers debate what would be the first significant revamping of Illinois’ dated school funding formula since 1997, a number of variables are likely to come into play affecting the bill’s shape and chance of passing.

Here’s a look at the issues:

A CHANGING BILL

The legislation, which is sponsored by Democratic state Sen. Andy Manar, aims to shrink the disparity between per-pupil spending in districts with rich and poor property tax bases by requiring schools to demonstrate need before receiving almost all state funding. This would reduce the amount of state aid that goes to wealthier districts, which mainly rely on local property tax revenue to fund their schools.

Backers argue that poorer districts have less money to spend per pupil and can’t increase their own districts’ funding by raising property tax rates without risking those communities’ economic well-being.

Opponents say the bill creates an unfair system of “winners and losers” in which those paying higher property taxes, in part for better schools, are unfairly penalized.

Furthermore, groups advocating on behalf of special needs students oppose a component of the bill that would eliminate a state reimbursement to districts to help offset the costs of special education staff.

Democratic state Rep. Will Davis, who is chairing Tuesday’s hearing, says lawmakers are considering tweaking that element. He said other changes could include fixing the formula to prevent state funding cuts to “anomaly districts” that have many poor students but relatively high property tax rates.

GOP OPPOSITION

A partisan divide has emerged over the proposal, with Republicans generally opposing it in its current form.

Emboldened by the election of a Republican governor for the first time in more than a decade, they criticized House Democrats for excluding the GOP from those summer meetings.

“This is a very, very complicated issue. And sadly, the way in which the majority party presented it and went into hiding was a terrible disservice to taxpayers and families whose children are part of the public education system,” House Republican Leader Jim Durkin said.

A resolution sponsored by Republican Rep. Ron Sandack and co-sponsored by 20 of the 47 members of the House GOP caucus decries what it called Manar’s “piecemeal reallocation” of school funding that will lead hundreds of districts to “deep budget reductions and financial uncertainty.”

Rauner, who invested millions in education reform before running for office, indicated during an October debate that he doesn’t support Manar’s bill, even though he thinks Illinois’ school funding formula should be overhauled. His spokesman, Mike Schrimpf, said Rauner would not elaborate at this time beyond what he’d said during the debate.

TIMING

Davis said he hopes the proposal could come up for a vote as early as the General Assembly’s last session in early January before the inauguration of Rauner, who would likely veto it.

Durkin, meanwhile, stressed the need for more time for what he calls a “more collaborative effort.”

“There are a lot of major issues ... that need to be addressed in a global manner with the new General Assembly and the new [governor’s] administration,” he said.

Among those issues is whether to extend the state’s temporary income tax hike, set to roll back January, and the fate of a judicial challenge to the state’s pension crisis solution, both of which could severely affect the state funding that would be available for schools. Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan, who holds a veto-proof supermajority in the House, has been largely noncommittal on the subject so far.

“There remains a good amount of concern about the bill in its current form,” said Steve Brown, Madigan’s spokesman. “[But] there’s no doubt some changes need to be made in how we fund schools.”

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