School funding in Illinois is such a confusing and volatile issue that even people who ought to be allies find themselves on opposing sides.

Beverley Johns is considered one of the leading advocates of special education for children with disabilities in Illinois. Recently, she was scheduled to appear in a Webinar for the Illinois Principals Association.

“I was told the Webinar was canceled because of comments I have made about some other organizations and their support for school funding reform legislation in Springfield, which I believe would harm children with disabilities in Illinois,” Johns said.

OPINION

Johns contends that bills sponsored by State Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, and state Rep. Will Davis, D-East Hazel Crest, which are intended to increase school funding for needy school districts, would actually undermine special education.

State funds specifically designated to reimburse local school districts for the costs of employing special education teachers, about $9,000 for each teacher, would lose their targeted purpose, allowing school districts to use them as they see fit, Johns contends.

“Since this state underfunds the schools, it is inevitable that special education will end up competing with athletic programs, music and the arts for money, and whenever that happens children with disabilities lose,” Johns said.

Davis told me Johns is wrong. He claims that under his legislation no school district in Illinois would lose money and every school district would be required to spend the same amount on special education as it did previously.

“My bill has a hold-harmless provision which means there will be no losers in this state,” Davis said.

Johns replied that under the proposed legislation these state funds must be used for “anything the school district calls special education, but does not have to be used for special education teachers.”

“A school district could reduce the number of special ed teachers it hires,” she said, “and lose zero funds under House Bill 2808.”

H.B. 2808 is called the Evidence-Based Funding for Student Success Act and “sets forth provisions concerning an adequacy target calculation, a base funding maximum calculation, a percent of adequacy and final resources calculation, an evidence-based funding formula distribution system” and an administrative system and methodology for determining all of that.

Johns doesn’t trust school districts to distribute funds intended for special education children. I don’t blame her. The history is that parents of special education children have repeatedly had to file lawsuits to make schools responsive to their needs.

But there are also federal laws regulating special education funding.

The real problem in Illinois, as Johns points out, isn’t the system of distributing money (which has always been confusing), it’s the state’s failure to adequately fund public education.

I think Davis and Manar are well-intentioned, trying to solve a problem that has been 30 years in the making. But without billions of new dollars to invest in the schools, the system can’t be fixed.

The state already owes millions of dollars to local school districts because it simply doesn’t have the money to pay its bills.

Although elected leaders have been unable to pass a budget for two years, Davis believes he will get bipartisan support for his school funding reform measure this spring. When and if the state ever gets more money to fund education, he wants a system in place to send the money to the school districts that need it the most.

Given the inability of the government to address the mounting financial crisis and its historic neglect of school funding, its hard to believe Illinois would now choose to finally reform its outdated school funding formula.

So it will probably happen.

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