Brown: Lawmaker’s tough vote gives less money to hometown schools

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State Sen. Don Harmon, D-Oak Park. | Sun-Times file photo

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Sen. Don Harmon, an Oak Park Democrat, voted this week in favor of a new Illinois school funding formula that could cost his hometown’s elementary schools about half the $10 million they now receive in state aid.

You’d better believe that was a tough vote. A principled one, too.

But Harmon, whose Senate district stretches from the Chicago Public Schools-served neighborhoods of Austin and Galewood to the DuPage County enclaves of Addison and Bensenville, said Illinois must begin overhauling its flawed system of distributing education dollars.

I called Harmon on Wednesday because I knew his Senate district encompasses the varying impacts of changing the funding formula — with some communities coming up winners and others losers.

Despite the losers, Harmon believes the bill that advanced Tuesday through the Senate on a partisan 31-21 vote is a good start in the direction of fairness by directing more resources to students that need them the most.

“We just can’t keep saying no,” Harmon told me, referring to the Legislature’s annual reluctance to fix a system that most agree is unfair but find too politically daunting to tackle.

OPINION

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The funding formula rewrite is not a finished product, as Harmon emphasized in defending his vote that would benefit CPS and other financially challenged school districts across the state at the expense of Oak Park and other more affluent suburban districts.

The Illinois House, where the measure goes next for consideration, is expected to author its own version — or to try to duck the subject for another year.

But the Senate legislation is close enough to soup that some version of a new school funding formula deserves to be part of any budget solution reached this year.

And if more revenue is found for education and other state needs, most likely through a state tax increase, then there wouldn’t be a need for any community to come away with less funding for its schools.

“I feel that this formula, when paired with the appropriate level of state funding for schools, could work for everyone,” Harmon said.

In Illinois, the state puts up less than half the money for schools, leaving it to local communities to provide most of the funding through property taxes.

This creates a situation in which poorer towns with little property wealth have vastly less to spend on educating their students than wealthier communities, generally resulting in better schools in wealthier suburbs, but also very high property taxes.

More affluent communities think school funding is unfair because their schools receive less support per student from the state, but it’s more unfair to poorer communities whose students have fewer opportunities.

Then you have Chicago, with a school district that at the same time encompasses some of the state’s greatest wealth and greatest concentration of poor students, where nobody seems to believe the system works for their benefit.

The new funding formula, devised by Sen. Andy Manar, a downstate Democrat, would give more consideration to factors that increase the cost of educating students, such as how many of them are living in poverty or for whom English is a second language.

That would help Chicago Public Schools to the tune of $175 million next year, Democrats say, although on a percentage basis it’s of even greater benefit to schools in Waukegan, Harvey and Joliet. The formula also benefits many smaller downstate communities hurt by the state’s ailing economy.

In Harmon’s district, schools in Elmwood Park are projected to come out $2.5 million ahead, while Maywood-Melrose Park-Broadview District 89 would gain $4.7 million.

But DuPage High School District 88, serving Addison Trail and Willowbrook high schools, would lose $3.5 million and Leyden High School District 212 would lose $3 million.

I don’t know exactly what formula is fair, but I’d bet that even with less money the losing schools wouldn’t want to trade places with the winners.

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