School funding bill may face tough road in election year
By Mark Fitton
For The Rock River Times
SPRINGFIELD – State Sen. Andy Manar is making another run at revamping the state’s school aid formula, calling it “the worst and most regressive system of funding public education” in the country.”
With school funding in Illinois relying as heavily on local property taxes and property values varying wildly, he says the state is failing to meet the requirement of its own 1970 constitution that it take primary responsibility for funding the public education system.
Manar, a Democrat from Bunker Hill, argues today’s school aid formula, nearly untouched since 1997, is unjust and unfair in that it doesn’t direct state funds to where there they are most needed.
While some districts’ high property tax bases allow per student funding of $30,000 per pupil, others struggle to spend $6,000, he said.
At the same time, he notes that those districts with high poverty rates also often have low-value tax bases, forcing them to raise their tax rates. And, he says, those districts least able to fund education are held to the same standards as those that can spend three of four times as much.
“We have a system that’s embedded in the law that sets up inequity,” Manar said in recent news conference.
Manar’s plan, contained in Senate Bill 231, includes:
- Establishing “foundation level” spending in accordance with districts’ needs, and eliminating special block grants, including for the Chicago Public School system.
- A “hold-harmless” clause that would ensure districts receive no less funding for the coming year than in the current year. However, that feature would be phased out over four years.
- The “hold harmless” clause would require adding about $400 million, in the first year, to the roughly $13 billion the state now spends on public pre-kindergarten through Grade 12 education.
- Having the state, not the city, pick up the employer contribution for Chicago teacher pensions. That adds an additional $200 million cost. The state currently covers the pension contribution for all public school districts except for Chicago’s.
Manar, now on his third attempt to rewrite the school aid formula, said he knows it will face opposition, much of it from the suburban Chicago areas doing comparatively well under the current plan that would eventually lose state funding.
But he says his plan presents “a statewide solution to a statewide problem.”
State Sen. Steve Stadelman, D-Rockford, said he’s glad “Sen. Manar is taking another crack at moving this forward.”
Stadelman said that under the current funding system, Rockford is pushed into taxing at rates three times higher than some suburban Chicago districts yet is still only able to spend half as much per pupil.
“The state relies so heavily on property taxes, and that’s really unfair to a struggling district like Rockford,” Stadelman said.
State Rep. Joe Sosnowski, R-Rockford, said he wants to take a closer look at Manar’s proposal, but he has concerns, including how the state will pay for the additional costs.
On first glance, he said, it appears districts including those in Rockford and Belvidere would be winners in terms of dollars received.
But Sosnowski said the proposal also raises questions, including how does the state help those districts losing money in the new formula not take too hard a hit.
“I’m open to looking at a state aid formula that looks at the needs of school districts,” Sosnowski said. But, he added, getting a complete rewrite of the formula done might be difficult given the current deadlock in Springfield.
State Rep. John Cabello, R-Machesney Park, said he’s willing to look at Manar’s proposal, but it also has to fit into the state’s overall budget picture.
“I’d hope that we can all come to the table and look at what we need to do and how we can do it,” Cabello said. “I do want to see education fully funded.”
Eliminating unfunded mandates and making sure taxpayers are getting better “bang for the buck” would be two of his priorities in any negotiations, Cabello said.
Gov. Bruce Rauner, R-Winnetka, has said he’s willing to discuss some changes to the school aid formula. But Rauner also has repeatedly said he wants a “clean” education bill that won’t stall the opening of schools this fall, and he won’t get behind any proposals that might jeopardize that.
In his own education budget proposal for the coming year, the governor seeks education spending adequate to meet the statewide $6,119 per-student foundation level that’s been in place for years but has gone unmet.
Manar’s past efforts to rewrite the school aid formula have gotten support in the Senate, where Democrats hold a commanding 39-20 supermajority. But House Democrats, who also hold a supermajority, haven’t shown comparable support.
Further, Republican legislative leaders and Rauner have criticized attempts to entirely redraft the formula that they say will leave some districts big winners and others big losers.
Picking up the Chicago pension contribution also may prove politically unpopular, particularly in an election year, as many suburban and downstate lawmakers consider that part a “bailout” for the troubled Chicago Public Schools system.
Manar, though, said he’ll try to push the issue this spring. He says that with negotiations, a need-based school aid formula can be passed this spring.
“This idea that we have an unjust system that’s continuously preserved because it’s not politically palatable to change it is ridiculous to me,” Manar said.
Mark Fitton is a Springfield-based journalist whose previous experience includes nearly 30 years with publications including The Southern Illinoisan in Carbondale, The Pantagraph in Bloomington, The Herald-News in Joliet and The Peoria Journal-Star.