Sticker shock felt with Illinois school funding plan

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ROCKFORD — A report outlining ways to solve disparities in Illinois’s school funding model was introduced to state legislators on Wednesday, but finance changes face big hurdles over budget constraints.

The bipartisan, 25-member Illinois School Funding Reform Commission was formed six months ago by Gov. Bruce Rauner to tackle funding gaps between fiscally-sound and struggling school districts in the state. Illinois has one of the widest funding gaps in the nation in relation to district spending, according to the report.

No quick movement is expected, and Sen. Dave Syverson (R-Rockford) said any school funding model modifications would need to be done within current budget parameters. The report estimates it would cost an additional $3.5 billion to $6 billion to ensure each school district was properly funded.

“That’s way above what is budgetarily feasible,” Syverson said. “This is a wish-list that’s going to run into the reality of where we are as a state. The real question is: How do we make these adjustments to the current formula to ensure all funding is distributed in a fair way?”

On average, state school districts with the greatest number of low-income students net 20 percent less funding than wealthy districts, according to the report. Suggestions in the report include developing adequacy targets for each district to reflect particular needs of students. Illinois currently ranks in the top states in the country in terms of school spending, but the state contributes just a fourth of the funding total. Because of the state’s relatively low contribution, schools in Illinois frequently offset deficits by hiking property taxes.

Syverson said he thought local school districts that had increased property taxes to support a district should not go underfunded. A component of the proposed changes would take into account local contributions to school funding.

“They shouldn’t be punished because they chose to help their own schools,” he added.

Past school funding changes have failed at the state level due to infighting between legislators to take funding from wealthier schools and redistribute to struggling districts. The total funding amount would depend on any final legislation and the demographics of all eligible school districts in the state.

Among challenges in the report to boosting operating funding lies is Illinois statewide pension liabilities, with the pension system having differing salary contributions across Illinois’s 852 school districts.

Any funding increase would be added in gradually. Currently no funding sources had been identified for providing schools with more resources, but the plan will serve as a strong starting point for legislative discussions, said Rep. Joe Sosnowski, a Republican whose district includes South Beloit.

“I think this is a great baseline for going forward,” Sosnowski said. “It’s movement in the right direction.”

State senators will review a series of 12 bills next week, a move that would then give the House a chance at working towards passing a new state budget, Syverson said. Some of the proposed legislation would include educational reform packages to reshuffle procurement issues, modify what schools can and cannot contract out and touch on work compensation reform.

Both Sosnowski and Syverson noted any school funding changes would need to benefit all state schools, and possibly reevaluate how money is sent to schools in Chicago since the system has seen continued declines in enrollment over the last three years, while still seeing some state funding increases. Both legislators said they would support reexamining how funds are sent to Chicago schools, possibly on a per-student basis.

“There have been a lot of discussions the last couple of years on different funding strategies and how you could do that,” Sosnowski said.

A barrier with the issue always centers on some districts losing funds, which is a tough topic for any district to tackle, Syverson added.

“We need more resources to be put into all of our schools in the state,” he said. “We need structural reform to put in place a better system going forward.”

Both said they would support a model to boost funds to struggling schools by maintaining level funding to high-performing schools, rather than providing increases.

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