By Sara Burnett
SPRINGFIELD — The Illinois Senate on Tuesday approved a school funding overhaul that supporters hailed as “historic,” saying it will increase aid to all of the state’s more than 800 districts and eliminate large disparities between rich and poor schools.
Senators voted 38-13 to send the measure to Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, who has said he’ll sign the bill quickly to get money to districts starting a new school year. The House passed the bill late Monday.
Democratic Sen. Andy Manar, the bill’s sponsor, said the plan will fund schools fairly “for the first time in decades.”
“There will not be another generation of students that are subjected to inequity — the worst in the country — after this bill becomes law,” he said. “That’s something worth saying today.”
Lawmakers have tried unsuccessfully for years to replace the current system. This year’s state budget required for the first time that the formula be changed, and provided an additional $350 million to help pay for it.
No money can go to districts, however, until a new plan is in place. Although school officials have said they will be able to open classrooms for the new school year, many districts have worried they would run out of money if a plan wasn’t approved soon.
The legislation passed Tuesday also provides $75 million in tax credits for people who contributed to private school scholarships.
Teacher unions and some school officials oppose the credits, saying taxpayer money shouldn’t be used to fund private schools. They fear the scholarships — which would benefit a maximum of 6,000 students — will reduce enrollment at public schools, some of which are struggling to maintain enough students to stay open.
The tax credit program will expire after five years if lawmakers don’t extend it. The credits would be worth 75 percent of a taxpayer’s annual contributions to a scholarship fund, with a maximum credit of $1 million annually. The money may be donated to a specific school but not to a specific student.
Students receiving the scholarships must have a household income of less than 300 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $73,000 annually for a family of four.
Under Illinois’ current system, districts must rely heavily on property taxes to fund schools. That’s created large differences in per-student funding, with some wealthier districts spending four times more per student than districts with less property tax wealth.
Under the new plan, the state will determine how much money each district needs to adequately educate its students, taking into consideration the number who live in poverty or who need special education services. The state then looks at how much money the district is able to generate from property taxes, and directs state aid first to districts that need the most money to reach their per-student spending target.
The legislation also provides money to help Chicago Public Schools make payments to its teacher pension funds, as Illinois does for other districts, and gives districts relief from some state mandates, such as allowing them to offer fewer days of physical education each week.