Children most in need always take financial hit in hard times

The funding gap in Illinois between whites and Latinos, white students and black students, remains about the worst in the nation.

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Four years ago, Gov. Bruce Rauner signed a school funding reform bill into law that was hailed by Republicans and Democrats alike as “historic,” and “landmark” legislation. Former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said, “Today we are choosing the students over a failed status quo.”

State Sen. Andy Manar, the Bunker Hill Democrat who sponsored the bill in the Senate, boasted “it wages war on poverty in the classroom” and “ends a great racial divide.”

I was cynical.

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For nearly three decades I had led a fight to change the way schools were funded because Illinois relied so heavily on property taxes to finance public education that it had been labeled one of the most racially biased states in the country.

In addition, skyrocketing property taxes had created an unfair tax burden on homeowners and small business owners. About 67 percent of all school funding comes from local property taxes, which means children in wealthy areas were attending schools with larger budgets, better paid teachers, the latest technology and schools where the roofs didn’t leak.

By comparison one study showed the national average was 46 percent of school funding from state coffers, 44 percent from property taxes and the rest from the federal government and other sources.

In Illinois, the state’s share of public education funding was only 24 percent.

It was a damn awful system. Politicians campaigned on the issue repeatedly and then did nothing to change it.

So, in 2017 people who had been waiting for something, anything, got all excited about the grand school funding reform plan that was passed and signed into law.

Key to the plan was a pledge to increase the state’s share of school funding by at least $350 million a year as part of a new formula that would target school districts in the greatest need.

The words used to describe it were “an evidence-based model” that would send money to places where the evidence indicated it was most needed.

Two years later the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability held a news conference with one of the bill’s sponsors announcing that at least twice as much money was needed each year to set things right, more than $700 million. That’s why Illinois needed a new graduated income tax system to raise more revenue.

That was before COVID-19 hit, of course. Last year, the governor announced the state wouldn’t be able to come up with the $300 million in additional funding due to revenue shortfalls, but proudly said no school would lose state money. This year, well, the problems are worse and for a second straight year that “historic” school funding reform plan will not be funded.

What does that mean? Back in 2017, the funding gap in Illinois between the haves and have-nots was $3,571 per student. After two years of the historic reform plan the gap was down to $3,520 per student. And now, with no additional funding, the gap has increased to $3,639 per student, more than it was back in 2017 when the landmark reform plan began.

When you have a flat state budget allocation for education, the schools lose money because their costs continue to increase.

The funding gap between whites and Latinos, white students and black students, remains about the worst in the nation here in Illinois.

Ironically, the state’s new school funding formula is admired as a model throughout the country. If only it were funded.

This evidence-based system designed to get funding where it is most needed might work in theory. But based on the evidence, our elected state officials have never put a priority on school children in Illinois.

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