WILSON: Illinois school funding reform bill facing long odds in Legislature

Posted: Apr. 11, 2014 11:34 am Updated: Jul. 4, 2014 1:15 pm

State Sen. Andy Manar's school funding bill has made it further in the Illinois Senate than most reform measures have in the past 35 years.

The Democrat from Bunker Hill steered his bill through a committee on Thursday, with a 10-2 majority as two other members voted present. Now the legislation moves to the full Senate where, history tells us, it faces some pretty long odds of passage. Those odds don't improve in the Illinois House.

Manar's bill is controversial because it would send more state funding to schools that demonstrate "financial need" and less funding, or perhaps none, to school districts that are flush with local funds.

Financial need is used in lots of other state programs.

Medicaid coverage is available to people in poverty, but as incomes rise the coverage that's free declines. It would be too expensive to offer free medical coverage to wealthy people.

Legislators representing affluent communities, with well-financed schools, won't like that analogy. In the past, they've argued that their constituents pay Illinois taxes and deserve equal footing on school funding. They argue for "fairness" and "treating everyone equally," and dismiss the logic of financial need.

There are some lawmakers who would truly give this school funding bill a chance and enter floor debate with open minds. That glimmer of hope will most likely be extinguished when the Illinois State Board of Education tabulates data that will show how each district in the state would be affected by the change.

The wealthiest school districts in the state are generally located in and near Chicago, the collar counties, and a few other suburbs near large cities. They are wealthy in a number of ways.

Property owners in those districts have incomes that are higher than the state median. Consequently, there are fewer children coming from low-income homes or other at-risk situations that could qualify the school district for specialized programs.

The school districts themselves also are wealthier because Illinois relies so heavily on property taxes to support schools. In districts where average home prices are high and property values continue to climb, local tax revenues are huge.

Parts of the school funding formula are meant to help the poorer districts with greater access to general state aid. Those parts are need-based. But a growing segment of state aid is not related to financial need.

In fiscal 2000, general state aid that was need-based amounted to $2.62 billion, with only $340 million that was not based on need.

In fiscal 2013, $2.51 billion in general state aid was need-based and $2.28 billion was not. A full 48 percent of the money going to schools was handled as though every school had equal financing.

Manar's bill seeks to apply the need-based funding to more of the general state aid. However, he will have to convince lawmakers from lots of districts to vote for a plan that would reduce the funds flowing to their schools.

Since those wealthy districts are packed in high-population areas, the number of legislators who prefer the status quo outnumber those who want change.