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How to give poorer kids a fairer cut of state dollars for school

Illinois Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, proposes an overhaul of the Illinois school aid formula to shift more money to less wealthy school districts. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

 

We write a lot about crime. We write about guns and gangs and murder.

We write about how to tamp it down: More cops. Better gun laws. Tougher sentencing.

What we should write about more is root causes. Criminals are made, not born. Pull a child up from poverty, give him the support and schooling he needs to make something of himself, and he’s less likely to go wrong later. He or she stands a better chance of leading a productive and fulfilling life.

Better schools now, that is to say, mean fewer prisons later. Better schools mean more doctors, poets and carpenters.

EDITORIAL

 

With respect to public education in Illinois, we’ve got that formula exactly backward, spending on poor kids just a fraction of the money we shower on rich kids. But we can begin to turn that around, starting right now.

A bill introduced in the state Senate on Wednesday would overhaul the way Illinois doles out money for education, shifting more funds to property-tax-starved school districts that serve large numbers of poor kids. It would reduce inequities in an indefensible system by which wealthier school districts now spend more than $20,000 per student while poorer districts spend less than $7,000.

Every major political leader in Springfield agrees the state’s current school funding formula needs an overhaul. We encourage them to see what’s right with this new bill, despite reservations, and get on board with it. State Senate President John Cullerton is a strong backer, as he has been in the past.

Gov. Bruce Rauner says he supports efforts to revise the state’s school aid formula, but believes funding for the next school year should not be held up in the meantime. Illinois’ priority right now, he told reporters Tuesday, should be to fully fund education to the foundation level — the minimum per-pupil amount set by law. This would cost the state an extra $55 million or so.

That would be a step in the right direction. But unfortunately, if Illinois were to increase overall education funding without first changing the basic school aid formula, much of that extra $55 million would not have the impact it could have.

Some of those additional state tax dollars still would go to school districts serving, say, Barrington or Lake Forest, where per-pupil spending already is very high because they enjoy great property tax wealth. It would be far better if every new dollar — and a bigger cut of the current dollars — went to districts that are really hurting for revenue even though they levy high property taxes. Elgin School District U-46, for example, taxes itself at roughly 122 percent of the state average but still falls considerably short of its basic revenue needs.

A strength of the bill introduced Wednesday, by Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, is that it attempts to minimize or eliminate the number of middle-tier school districts — not too rich, but not too poor — that would lose state revenue in a funding formula overhaul. Clearly, this provision is designed to draw support for the bill from both Republican and Democrats legislators who represent such districts, but it also feels fundamentally fair. Nobody wants to see districts that are doing just OK get walloped.

The shift in money from wealthier districts to poorer ones would be phased in over four years, ideally giving the governor and Legislature time to increase funding overall to avoid the problem of losers. If our political leaders are serious in their professed commitment to a fairer deal for poor kids, they will do just that.

More importantly, that “hold-harmless” provision could extend a number of years longer for those middle-tier school districts that don’t spend as much as they should per-student but already tax themselves heavily.

Where is Madigan in all this? Nothing happens in Springfield without his backing.

Madigan has said he’s troubled that Manar’s bill calls for the state to pick up Chicago’s teacher pension costs — $200 million a year — as it already does for all other school districts. Madigan says this would add to the problem of the state paying for pensions that it can’t control.

Without a doubt, that’s a legitimate beef. In a perfect world, school districts would pay pensions themselves and the state would plow the savings —about $800 million a year, not including Chicago — back into school funding.

But this is not a perfect world. This is Illinois. That big a reform won’t happen soon, if ever. Which Madigan knows better than anybody.

Madigan failed to support an earlier version of this bill, last year, possibly in part because the Chicago Teachers Union declined to sign on. The CTU was troubled that the earlier bill, like this latest one, eliminated a special annual block grant for the Chicago Public Schools.

But the new bill is estimated to increase net funding to Chicago by about $100 million, plus spare Chicago the $200 million in annual pension costs.

A more equitable state school funding formula would be good for Chicago, as well as for kids from tax-poor school districts across the state who deserve a fairer shake.

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