McHenry County districts, lawmakers watching new school funding reform efforts

Once again, a panel in Springfield has sounded off on how to fix the school funding formula in Illinois.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because many panels, commissions and task forces have come and gone since the ratification of the 1970 Illinois Constitution, with its vague admonition in Article 10, Section 1 that “the State has the primary responsibility for funding the system of public education.” It was a compromise statement agreed on by delegates eager to go home in the last days of the constitutional convention with their pay set to expire.

While Illinois ranks 15th in the nation in average per-pupil public school spending, according to 2013 data, only two states have larger gaps between spending on the wealthiest versus the poorest school districts, according to the final report issued last month by the Illinois School Funding Reform Commission. The commission, convened last year by Gov. Bruce Rauner, is the latest to attempt to tackle the problem.

However, that doesn’t count yet another school funding task force that House Speaker Michael Madigan decided to create barely three weeks after the commission released its final report Feb. 1.

Local lawmakers and educators are watching this latest effort with a touch of optimism, given growing lawmaker enthusiasm toward reform, although tempered by the complicated issue of hurting better-off school districts to help out the poorer ones.

“The problem is that there’s a huge gap between the lowest- and highest-spending districts. That’s a fact, and that issue has to be addressed,” said John Burkey, superintendent of Huntley Community School District 158. “Those districts do need more, but at the same time, it’s not even that we have our hand out saying we want more. We just don’t want to lose.”

The commission recommended abandoning the existing per-pupil formula in favor of creating individual targets for each school district based on the unique needs of their student populations. Factors affecting the targets would include student enrollment, the number of students living in poverty, the socioeconomic condition of that part of the state, and the percentage of students learning English as a second language.

Local state Sen. Karen McConnaughay, who is part of the 25-member commission, said the state needs to depart from its per-pupil formula in favor of more of an “evidence-based” one – an oft-repeated criticism among educators and other critics is that the biggest factor determining children’s educational outcome is their ZIP code.

“The cost to educate a child is different in Chicago than it is in St. Charles or Crystal Lake or Decatur or Ottawa,” said McConnaughay, R-St. Charles. “When you take a one-size-fits-all approach, what’s going to happen? You’re going to have winners and losers.”

But taking money away from the “winners” always has been a touchy subject, and understandably so.

State government only covers about 30 percent of total school funding, according to Illinois State Board of Education data. Two-thirds of the money comes from property taxes, and Illinois has the highest individual property tax burden of all 50 states – trimming state funding for any more affluent district likely would mean requests by school boards to further raise property taxes on already beleaguered homeowners and businesses.

Recognizing that this disparity has torpedoed previous reform efforts, the commission recommended creating a funding formula that would ensure that no district loses money in the name of helping others. But that would take money – a lot of money – that a cash-strapped state now going almost two years without a budget doesn’t have. And commission recommendations to help local school districts cut costs, such as stopping the never-ending stream of unfunded mandates that state lawmakers heap on them, don’t go nearly far enough in making up the difference.

The commission report estimates that it would cost at least $3.5 billion in new money over the next decade for all Illinois school districts to be at or above adequate funding. To reach the requirement in the state constitution that the state be the primary funder of public education – meaning it pays at least 50 percent of the total cost – it would cost an additional $2.5 billion.

School funding reform, along with easing Illinois’ property tax burden, were core components of the campaign of new 63rd House District Rep. Steve Reick, R-Woodstock, who took office in January. He has since been assigned to the House committees dealing with appropriations and curriculum, and most recently to the new bipartisan 24-member task force created by Madigan.

If it meets, that is. House Republican leadership has been debating whether to participate at all, out of concerns that Madigan’s true motive is to sideline the work the Rauner commission did or, as Reick said, create “just another exercise in kicking the can down the road.”

Reick said a growing number of lawmakers on both sides seem to be coalescing around the idea that the “primary responsibility” clause in the state constitution means providing at least 50 percent of the funding. The question is how to get there without taxing more people out of the state.

However, Reick said, the state is running out of time.

“We’re going to end up with pitchforks and torches in Springfield if we don’t get this thing fixed,” Reick said.

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