Government report recommends changes in state education funding distribution

By Eleanor Black

Illinois is ranked last in the country in state contributions to lower education funding, according to the U.S. Department of Education. But a report released by an Illinois senate committee aims to change that.

Earlier this month, Sen. Andy Manar, D-48, and the Education Funding Advisory Committee released a proposal to reform the state’s school funding distribution system, which has not been changed since 1997.

The committee was created in July 2013 to review and find recommendations to reform the state’s K-12 funding system. The recommendations released in the proposal were focused on providing an adequate level of funding, fair resources across the state, preparing students for success and supporting educators.

When making recommendations, Manar said their most critical recommendation was creating a single funding formula that would focus on student needs.

“Every year, money is appropriated for schools (in the state budget). Today, about 41 percent of it, when it’s distributed to the school districts in the state, uses need as a criteria for how it’s distributed,” he said. “So immediately, the districts that are in the most need of resources, they begin behind because more than half of the money that the state devotes to public education never considers need for distribution.”

Manar said the report recommends that the majority of money appropriated on an annual basis in the state budget is attached to a determination of need, and, thus, give more resources to districts that cannot pay for education services due to property wealth.

Right now, students with greater need for funding — students with low socioeconomic status, any student that’s learning English as a second language, special education students or gifted and talented students — are funded “outside of the formula grant program,” according to the report. Under EFAC’s recommended single funding formula, these students would be funded through the new formula and would also be given additional funding weight.

Education funding reform has been on the minds of many elected officials lately. In his State of the State address on Jan. 29, Gov. Pat Quinn focused on early childhood education and announced his Birth to Five Initiative, which aims to provide quality early learning opportunities to the children of Illinois.

“Since I’ve taken office, I’ve always fought to preserve early childhood education from radical budget cuts, and we found a way to invest $45 million to build early education centers in high-need areas such as Dolton, Kankakee and Cicero,” he said in the address. “By properly investing in our existing early learning programs and making this a budget priority, we can transform lives and save taxpayer money.”

Quinn’s budget address, in which he would be more specific about school funding, was pushed back from Feb. 19 to March 26.

Former governor Jim Edgar, now a distinguished fellow with the University’s Institution of Government and Public Affairs, was in office during the last change in the state’s school funding formula. He said this report is important because it has been almost 20 years since this discussion has taken place, so the state should look at what has changed in that time and whether the formula needs to be redone.

“For example, Chicago, which is one of the luckier districts, they’ve done very well in the last few years and they’ve taken money that perhaps should’ve gone into the formula,” he said. “They would have gotten some but wouldn’t have gotten as much, and poorer school districts around the state would have received more assistance.”

He also said that the bipartisan agreement in the report is a vital part of the proposal’s future.

“It’s a necessity in order to be successful, not only to get it passed, but to get it passed in a manner that’s good for the entire state,” he said. “It’s important to have that bipartisan involvement because democrats and republicans come at things from a little different angle sometimes, and if you can get some consensus, then that usually turns out to be better policy than when it’s just dictated by one party.”

Manar said creating stability and clarifying lower education funding would have a beneficial effect on the state as a whole because it is such a large piece of the state’s budget.

While he acknowledges that reforming the education funding system is a difficult process, Manar said the report will show that the current system has flaws that need to be remedied.

“The current law creates inequity, so our advocacy is to change the law so that it doesn’t keep protecting the haves at the expense of the have-nots, and that’s what is happening today,” he said. “If we expose the flaws in the current funding formula today, and we put reasonable solutions on the table, I think we’ll be successful in passing a bill.”

Eleanor can be reached at [email protected]