Lawmakers, parents and teachers clash over school funding

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SPRINGFIELD — Parents and teachers frustrated with Illinois’ school funding formula rallied for action Tuesday at the state Capitol, as House lawmakers opened talks on a bill that aims to even out disparities between districts by pumping more state dollars into poorer ones and giving less to the wealthiest.

Republicans largely oppose the bill, while Democrats who control both chambers of the Legislature mostly support it. The legislation passed the state Senate six months ago, and top House Democrats say they hope to call the bill for a vote before GOP Gov.-elect Bruce Rauner is sworn in Jan. 12.

Hundreds traveled to Springfield to join in chants and cheers before packing a committee room Tuesday. The hearing lasted several hours, only pausing when the Capitol was cleared for a fire alarm.

“There is no reason where a child lives should determine the education they receive,” state Rep. Will Davis, an education appropriations chair, said. “This bill has moved the debate so much further than it’s ever been before.”

The proposal is considered the most serious school funding overhaul for the state since 1997. But Republicans say they need more time to fully vet it.

“I don’t trust anyone at this time of year,” Republican state Rep. Ron Sandack said.

The proposal, sponsored by Democratic state Sen. Andy Manar, would require schools to demonstrate need before receiving almost any state money. Wealthier districts that rely largely on property tax revenues to fund their schools would receive less state aid, while property-poor districts would receive more.

Backers argue that poorer districts have less money to spend per pupil and can’t increase their own districts’ funding by raising property tax rates without risking those communities’ economic well-being.

“We can’t go to the taxpayer anymore,” Pana Superintendent David Lett told the House panel. “We are taxing at an extremely high rate. We just don’t have the assessed valuation, that’s the problem.”

Opponents say the bill unfairly penalizes people who live in areas where they pay higher property taxes in part for better schools.

“McHenry and Lake (County) have some of the highest tax rates in the state,” GOP state Rep. Barb Wheeler said. “In our middle-class communities, we’re going to have to cut programs.”

State Board of Education officials said Tuesday that they’re supportive of the concept of the proposal but would like to see a number of tweaks — including the determination of a local district’s wealth.

Other elements Davis has said may be changed include a component of the bill that would eliminate a state reimbursement to districts to help offset the costs of special education staff and fixing the formula to prevent state funding cuts to “anomaly districts” that have many poor students but relatively high property tax rates.

“We’ll be working with you on a consensus,” Democratic State Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia, a House sponsor of the legislation, told attendees.

KERRY LESTER, Associated Press

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