Herald-Whig View

Schools must be priority for Illinois

Posted: Aug. 6, 2017 12:01 am

ILLINOIS cannot afford to allow the politically charged climate in Springfield to derail efforts to finally enact meaningful education reform.

Lawmakers from both parties agree the current state aid formula used to fund public schools-- established in 1997 -- is unfair and forces school districts to rely heavily on property taxes.

They acknowledge Illinois has the largest spending gap of any state between its most affluent school district and its poorest.

Some districts spend more than $30,000 per student, others less than $5,000 per pupil because the state provides only about one-fourth of what schools need, while property taxes supply two-thirds of funding.

This inequity continues to put rural schools, like many in West-Central Illinois, and inner-city schools with low property wealth and a high concentration of poor students at a financial and educational disadvantage.

Clearly, correcting this problem is long overdue.

Both the Senate and the House approved Senate Bill 1 at the end of the regular spring legislative session.

The bill changes the formula to fund its K-12 public schools by implementing an evidence-based model that channels money to the neediest districts first after ensuring that no district receives less money than it did in the last school year and sets individual adequacy targets for every district.

Those adequacy targets -- or amount of additional state funding that's determined to be needed to adequately educate each student -- is calculated on several factors, including the level of available local resources, percentage of low-income students, technology, class size ratios and location in the state.

However, Gov. Bruce Rauner used his amendatory veto power last week to rewrite many of the provisions in Senate Bill 1, including cutting money earmarked for Chicago Public Schools.

He says his funding plan will provide even more money to school districts around the state, although the Illinois State Board of Education is not expected to release its analysis of the governor's proposal until this week.

Options for resolving this dispute are limited.

Lawmakers could override Rauner's amendatory veto. This is possible in the Senate, where Democrats have enough votes to meet the three-fifths majority threshold, but less certain in the House, where at least four Republicans would have to join 67 Democrats to override and make Senate Bill 1 law as written.

Or, the Senate and the House would agree to the provisions spelled out by Rauner in his amendatory veto by the same three-fifths majority. This, however, is considered even more unlikely, given that the General Assembly has yet to accept any of the governor's amendatory vetoes since he took office.

The bottom line is if lawmakers are unable to come up with the votes for either option, the legislation would die, meaning schools would not receive money until a new funding formula is developed.

While negotiations are reportedly ongoing, education funding is a complicated issue in a state as diverse as Illinois. It took more than two years for Senate Bill 1 to gain enough support for approval in the General Assembly.

While schools are expected to open on time without state funding, many districts have said they will have to make cuts or even close their doors if lawmakers can't agree on a plan by fall. Quincy Public Schools Superintendent Roy Webb, for example, said the district can tap into its $16 million in property taxes to sustain operations through late fall.

Clearly, our schools should not be put in that situation. It's incumbent on lawmakers and the governor to overcome their differences and compromise where necessary to take advantage of an opportunity to finally fix an inequitable education funding formula.

Illinois and its schoolchildren cannot afford anything less.

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