Governor’s commission urges more state money for poor students

SHARE Governor’s commission urges more state money for poor students

Chicago Teachers Union members march in June 2016. | Sun-Times file photo

Poor children, especially those living in concentrated poverty, need more money to be as successful in school as their wealthier peers, says a bipartisan commission set up by Gov. Bruce Rauner to reform how public schools are funded.

Illinois Senate leaders have been waiting for the commission report, released Wednesday, to incorporate its findings into a “grand bargain” package of bills aimed at ending the state’s budget stalemate.

The commission was tasked in August by the governor with figuring out how Illinois should best dole out the money — about $11 billion a year — it spends on public schoolchildren. A series of hearings led members to determine that kids in schools that are farthest behind “adequate” funding levels shouldn’t ever lose any state funding until schools at or above those adequate levels do.

Rauner on Wednesday thanked commission members “for putting politics aside to advance a bipartisan framework that can serve as an immediate roadmap for legislation.”

“Illinois is another step closer to fixing our broken school funding system,” the governor said in a statement.

The 25 commissioners were picked from both parties and both houses of the General Assembly.

According to their 18-page report, “the commission members agree that low-income children and those who live in areas of concentrated poverty require additional resources and attention to reach their academic potential.”

And it estimated that getting all school districts to “adequate” funding would take a minimum of $3.5 billion over the next decade, however the panel didn’t offer any specific mechanisms for increasing the funding.

It did agree that the way Illinois currently pays for its schools hurts districts with poor students because they rely more on state funding than wealthier districts that can collect more property taxes.

Children still learning English and special education students should also qualify for additional funding, but other costs such as transportation and early childhood spending, should be kept separate, the commission said.

Chicago Public Schools, where at least eight of every 10 children are considered poor, has been pushing hard for a formula re-do. Nothing in the report specifically benefits CPS, which balanced its budget on a state promise of $215 million for teacher pensions. That bill was vetoed by Rauner after a deal fell apart to tie the plan to a statewide pension reform fix. The $215 million is now included within the Senate grand bargain package, and Senate leaders say they want it voted on as soon as next week.

CPS CEO Forrest Claypool issued a statement late Wednesday in response to the report:

“The education funding reform task force report is yet another bipartisan acknowledgement that Illinois’ education funding system is broken, and the time to fix it is now – before more students lose out under the nation’s most inequitable school funding system,” Claypool said. “We ask Governor Rauner to take these concerns about equity seriously, stop perpetuating a racially unjust system and immediately deliver on his promised funding of $215 million for Chicago students.”

Education policy experts at Advance Illinois said the framework’s core principles ought to benefit any district with large populations of poor children.

“The overall approach that’s in the report of recognizing the needs of students and particularly the needs of schools with low-income students – and recognizing that the state funding formula needs to provide additional resources for those districts  – helps schools and school districts that are urban like Chicago as well as rural districts Downstate,” executive director Ginger Ostro said. “The idea is really to make sure funding reflects student needs.”

State Sen. Andy Manar (D-Bunker Hill) has sponsored several previous bills that failed because critics said they created “winners and losers” with existing funding or they cost the state millions more — and Rauner has opposed any district losing money regardless of its income.

Manar said Wednesday he had hoped the commission would have drafted an actual bill both houses could immediately consider.

Fixing the formula still will require more money that likely will be tied to the “grand bargain,” he said Wednesday, because “there’s a big piece of this set of recommendations that will rely on a balanced budget that requires more resources for public education.”

Manar acknowledged that his colleagues didn’t agree on all points.

“The commission in a very strong way recommended with broad bipartisan consensus that we need to account for the unique needs of every school district in Illinois, which means we need to account for the fact, for the absolute fact that it takes more to educate a child in poverty to get same outcome as a child that doesn’t,” Manar said. “That change alone, if we can just accomplish that, will take a tremendous bite out of the inequity in the state of Illinois.”

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