If Gov. Bruce Rauner and the Illinois Legislature are serious about fixing our broken state, they must overhaul an education funding system that year after year holds back our poorest children.
Of all the reforms being debated in Springfield, that is the most critical. It is an essential investment in our state’s future and in its youngest, brightest minds. It is the best way to hammer away at poverty.
There have been many attempts in the past to come up with a fairer funding model. Every effort failed. Every task force fizzled.
But there is a new and particular urgency now.
On Wednesday, a bipartisan commission overseen by a Rauner appointee gave lawmakers an honest “framework” to create a new school funding formula. Now it’s up to Rauner, Senate President John Cullerton and House Speaker Michael Madigan to push through a bill that finally ends the disparity between the poorest school districts in Illinois and the wealthiest.
A new education funding model is a necessary component of the grand budget deal proposed in the Illinois Senate by Cullerton and Minority Leader Christine Radogno. The school funding bill would be interlocked with 12 other major pieces of legislation, and the whole ball of wax would have to pass as one to put an end to the state’s budget crisis. One of those 12 other bills separately addresses the $215 million Chicago Public Schools needs to help close a budget gap.
CPS and other school districts in communities with high rates of poverty, from Waukegan down to Cairo, should gain a lot under the commission’s guidelines.
“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,” the commission wrote in its findings.
This is not new. It is what education experts have been saying for years. But it is good to hear it, without punches being pulled, from a bipartisan group headed by Rauner’s secretary of education, Beth Purvis.
The commission recommended setting up individualized, tailor-made funding “adequacy” targets for all school districts, taking into account factors such as the number of students living in concentrated poverty and students with special needs.
And when the state comes up short on money it owes schools — as it has in the last several years — wealthier schools should take the financial hit before poorer ones do, the commission said. You bet.
All school districts still would depend heavily on local property taxes for funding. But in areas with little property wealth, such as rural communities or towns with high rates of poverty, school districts would not be punished for being poor.
For schools in line to take a financial hit under the new formula, the education commission calls for extra “hold harmless” funding to soften the blow.
Fair funding won’t come cheap. Currently, the state spends about $11 billion a year on public elementary and high school education. Another $3.5 billion, and possibly up to $6 billion, will be required over the next decade to adequately fund all schools, according to the commission. The commission left it up to lawmakers — and, yes, we know this is where grand ambitions go to die — to figure out where the additional money will come from.
“What’s at stake for Illinois, if we don’t fix the formula, is our ability to provide a high quality education for every child in the state,” Purvis said. “We’ll lose that opportunity.”
Illinois has squandered countless opportunities in the past. And millions of kids have paid the price. Illinois school districts with the highest poverty rates receive nearly 20 percent less than school districts with the lowest poverty rates. That’s one of the largest gaps in the nation.
That is the shame of a backward state, and we refuse to believe we live in a backward state.
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