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Students, teachers to see millions of dollars in new funding this week — finally

Students work inside their classroom at Brentano Math and Science Academy in 2016. File Photo. | Lou Foglia/Sun-Times

It’s been years in the works — with countless political squabbles along the way — but a historic new school funding formula designed to help the state’s neediest districts is finally ready to hit the classrooms.

The Illinois Comptroller’s office will begin doling out millions of dollars to school districts across the state on Tuesday. Chicago Public Schools is to receive an additional $60 million for the current school year under the new formula.

The Illinois State Board of Education announced Thursday that it had finalized the new evidence-based funding formula for the next school year and had issued vouchers to the comptroller. That means $395 million will be distributed to school districts based on the new formula, which defined an adequate funding target for each district based on enrollment and the cost of 34 factors determined to have the most beneficial impact on students. Increases in education appropriations went to the neediest districts.

The drastic changes to the formula the state has used to distribute money to its public schools aim to send more new money to the districts that need it most and are least able to raise more money themselves via the property taxes that typically fund Illinois schools. The state’s contribution toward its poorest students has been lowest in the nation.

Advance Illinois, an education advocacy organization that has worked to change the formula for nearly five years, said it will conduct its own analysis of the number, but the state’s formula appears to be “very much as we had expected.”

Students study physics and chemistry at Austin Polytechnical High School in 2010. (File Photo by John H. White/Chicago Sun-Times).

“A significant amount of dollars is going to the highest low-income districts and those with low property wealth. It’s very much in line with what we expected,” said Ben Boer, deputy director of Advance Illinois said. Boer said more than 50 percent of the new funding is being disbursed to low-income school districts.

Still, lawmakers will have to increase spending for schools each year for a decade for the formula to work.

The reforms were a long time coming but managed to stall each time they appeared to be done in moves that have threatened the prompt arrival of money to school districts.

The governor’s office applauded the new formula, saying Gov. Bruce Rauner has made education “a priority since day one” with school funding increasing every year he has been in office.

“In the last year he signed this historic reform into law and proposed record funding levels for education,” spokeswoman Rachel Bold said in a statement. “It’s exciting to see this new law taking effect and to know that students and teachers getting the resources they need.”

Altogether, Chicago Public Schools is expected to receive $1.54 billion from the state in the current school year, according to the Illinois State Board of Education.

CPS is expecting $450 million in additional funding under the deal reached last year. That includes $60 million from the new formula, $221 million in pension help, $125 million from a property tax increase the Chicago Board of Education must still authorize and money from state grants.

The school district initially estimated it would get $71 million from the new funding formula, but the numbers released by the state board found several districts qualified for more supplemental funding than anticipated due to their changing student needs, CPS said.

Still, CPS said the lower allocation doesn’t have an impact on the district’s budget because additional funds became available throughout the year from debt savings and other financial improvements.

CPS funding has been at the heart of several feuds between Rauner and Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Rauner has taken heat from Democrats for calling the school funding bill his top accomplishment last year, despite vetoing it twice. But the Rauner campaign says the vetoes were “in order to negotiate a better final product,” which included a private school tax scholarship program.

(From left) Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Illinois Senate President John Cullerton, Illinois House Minority Leader Jim Durkin, Illinois Senate Republican Leader Bill Brady and Gov. Bruce Rauner listen as supporters discuss SB 1947, an education reform funding bill that Rauner signed into law at Ebinger Elementary School on Aug. 31, 2017. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

In applauding the work of all those who helped make the formula possible, CPS also noted the Republican governor will have to work with lawmakers going forward to make sure education continues to be funded properly in the state.

CPS spokesman Michael Passman said the new formula shows “the effort for equitable funding has just begun, and we will continue to advocate for more education funding for all schools in Illinois.”

“Looking ahead, the question is whether Gov. Rauner will work with lawmakers to fully fund the education formula,” Passman said.

In a statement, Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza made light of some of the political feuds regarding the formula, while also thanking bill sponsors state Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill; state Rep. Will Davis, D-Homewood; and educators for their work in pushing for the funding changes.

“Illinois schools have been waiting a long time — including through the governor’s obstructionist vetoes — and I am thrilled the day has finally come for more equitable funding,” Mendoza said in a statement. “My office has been planning for these payments, and they will be made on time.”

State Comptroller Susana Mendoza accompanied by Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, left, and Rep. Christian Mitchell, D-Chicago, right, speaks at a news conference last month in Springfield, Ill. | John O’Connor/AP photo

The comptroller’s office said the first payments under the new formula are scheduled for Tuesday, and the office will continue to process vouchers on April 20, and in May and June. Districts have received the required general state aid but have been behind on payments for “categorical funding” — such as bus transportation and special education — due to the impasse. The state is now one quarter behind on those payments, with those supposed to have been sent out in December.

Rauner in August signed the historic bill, but there were hiccups before and after the signing. An agreement was reached last week among Democratic and Republican legislative leaders and the governor. Included in the deal is language that would authorize the Chicago Board of Education to impose the property-tax hike worth $125 million without any involvement from the Chicago City Council. The Board of Education plans to approve the increase, enabling the Chicago Public Schools to get the $450 million in new state and local money for the 2017-18 school year.

Surrounded by students and elected officials, Gov. Bruce Rauner signs education funding reform bill SB 1947 at Ebinger Elementary School on  Aug. 31, 2017. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

This year, Illinois will also pay CPS $31 million for grants, including for early childhood education, and $221 million toward CPS’ normal pension costs.

Rauner had called the initial Democratic measure a “Chicago bailout,” but the bill he signed into law ended up giving CPS even more. Rauner and Republicans, however, were able to agree to a number of items within the “compromise,” including the private school scholarship program that will provide tax credits for anyone who donates to organizations that create scholarship funds for low- and mid-income students attending private schools.

The new law also created a Professional Review Panel to study and review the implementation of the formula. The panel will be able to offer future modifications, but no appointments have yet been made. The state’s Superintendent of Education will make appointments, with Rauner and legislative leaders to make non-voting appointments, the state board of education said. Still, Advance Illinois said the new panel will oversee the formula. The state board said the formula won’t be changed by the panel.