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Editorial: Fund Illinois schools more fairly

Last fall Trent Toennies of downstate Centralia High School, lobbied for reform in education funding. Photo by Seth Perlman, AP.

When your state is broke, it’s dicey to bring up costly reforms.

But certain matters should take precedent, and so it goes in Illinois with education funding.

EDITORIAL

Poorer school districts across Illinois continue to get pounded by a state funding formula established nearly 20 years ago that forces them to rely heavily on local property taxes. That works miserably for them because they have little property to tax, and their children suffer the consequences.

We support Senate Bill 1, sponsored by Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, an imperfect but fair proposal to address disparities in property values and student needs across the state.

This bill is an improved version of a bill that passed in the Senate last year but stalled in the House. We wrote then that we supported the goals of that bill but could not endorse it because of the excessive financial strain it would put on many middle-income districts.

We cited, as an example, Skokie Elementary School District 69, which stood to lose $2.1 million in state funding. But under SB1, District 69 would break even, largely because the bill calls for an additional $92 million in state school spending overall.

Existing funding grants for special education and English language learners would continue, as well, resulting in lower-income schools benefiting most from the new formula.

Although Chicago Public Schools would lose its block grant from the state, the distribution formula in this bill would net tens of millions of extra dollars for CPS, in part reflecting recent dips in Chicago’s property values, the bill’s backers said.

Downstate schools in rural and urban areas would benefit, as well as school districts in Elgin, Cicero, Waukegan, Joliet and Aurora. Other suburban school districts, especially in the northwest suburbs, would receive much less. Schaumburg School District 54 likely would be hit hardest, losing $12.3 million.

The weakness in this bill, of course, is that it does not explain where our cash-strapped state would come up with that extra $92 million. Without the additional revenue, there would be no way to soften the blow of lower funding for some school districts. And it would be of little solace to the losers that, hey, the system is fairer overall.

Manar says he won’t advance the bill if the extra funding can’t be pulled together, and he must stay true to that. For generations, Illinois has fallen shamefully short of its constitutional obligation to fund education. Illinois is the second worst state in the nation in that respect.

Thousands of children in Illinois go to inferior schools simply because they have the bad luck to live in hard-luck towns. The state’s funding formula must be made more equitable.