Standing in front of a room of public school administrators, Michael Jacoby explained the latest organized push in Springfield to change the state’s system of funding education.
Jacoby, executive director of the Illinois Association of School Business Officials, is touting a plan to change the way school money is distributed by the state government. Since Illinois is a financial mess, there isn’t enough money to adequately fund every child’s education. Public schools have been underfunded for 30 years and skyrocketing property taxes have been used to keep schools open.
So education activists and some legislators have decided that since numerous efforts to adequately fund public education have failed (killed by governors, Democratic Party leaders, Republican legislators, and even wealthy school districts), the best alternative is to redistribute the cash.
The plan is to send any meager increase in future funding to the neediest school districts first, while holding the wealthiest school districts harmless. Those wealthier districts will also get some new money (to keep them happy), just far less than what they would have received under the existing school funding formula.
If this sounds idiotic, it is, but that’s what you’re left with when elected leaders have soundly rejected every reasonable school funding reform plan.
The hope, as Jacoby explained to his audience of about 25 school officials from south Cook County the other night, is that by changing the school funding formula the districts with the largest minority populations and poorest children will someday find themselves adequately financed because, well, a miracle could occur.
During the meeting, Fran LaBella, assistant superintendent of business affairs for Flossmoor School District 161, told Jacoby she feared a perfect storm of sorts this year. The state could freeze property taxes (which provide 65 percent of all education funds), could also force local school districts to pick up the state’s portion of teacher pensions (the pension systems are $110 billion in debt), and the state would not increase its contribution to the education budget at all.
If all that happens and lawmakers also decide to change the school funding formula, LaBella noted, schools would be in big trouble.
Sometimes just maintaining the rotten status quo seems like a pretty good deal. The state currently owes local school districts more than $1 billion in promised funding.
“In Illinois today, a child’s education is a function of the wealth of the community in which they live.” That’s a quote from Jacoby’s PowerPoint presentation. Low income students are faced with larger class sizes, fewer special classes like art and music, outdated textbooks and a lack of technology.
Parents in the poorest south suburbs of Cook County are also hit with some of the highest property tax rates in Illinois to fund their schools.
Illinois pays for only 25 percent of the cost of a public education, Jacoby said, while the nationwide average for states is about 40 percent. The Illinois Constitution clearly says the state has the “primary responsibility” for funding the schools and must provide a “high quality system of education.”
Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner formed a special task force to study education funding and the panel reported the state’s system is inadequate, unfair and plain awful.
Now people are being encouraged to join a rally in Springfield on May 17 to “Fix the (School Funding) Formula.” There is optimism that this time, despite past marches that drew thousands of angry parents and achieved little, lawmakers actually will respond. Maybe they will because this time people aren’t focused on demanding more money, just a new formula for distributing funds.
All Illinois legislators should be charged with 30 years of child neglect, but that’s not going to happen. In fact, chances are they will get re-elected by promising to make education a priority. That’s what they’ve always done in the past.