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Kadner: Mom says school reform numbers don’t add up

Debbie Chafee, a business analyst, estimates that a new state funding formula for schools, being considered in Springfield, would decrease funds for many districts that are far from wealthy and increase their local property tax burden. | Phil Kadner/Sun-Times Media

Debbie Chafee has some problems with the new school funding formula under consideration in Springfield and that could mean big problems for the movers and shakers in state government.

Chafee isn’t a big shot. She’s not a legislator, a school official or a lobbyist. She’s just a south suburban mother with two children in the public schools who happens to be a business analyst.

She crunches numbers for a living.

OPINION

Two years ago, after the state Senate passed a public school funding reform plan and it was headed for the Illinois House of Representatives for approval, Chafee of Hickory Hills analyzed what it would mean for her middle-class school district.

She discovered the proposal would cut her daughter’s school district budget by $4 million.

She computed the numbers for other school districts throughout the state and discovered many of them, including some poorer districts, would see their funds cut as well. She put the information together in a Power Point presentation and went on Twitter and Facebook to spread the word.

She had no formal organization behind her. But she soon had a social media following of thousands of parents throughout Illinois and she eventually got the attention of state Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, who was the chief sponsor of the funding reform plan.

Manar, probably the brightest state lawmaker when it comes to the problem of school financing, credits Chafee with convincing him to reformulate his plan and making him more sensitive to the needs of school districts that fall in the middle range of economic wealth.

Manar’s bill never got called in the House, but now another school funding reform proposal is under consideration as the result of work done by the Illinois School Funding Reform Commission, a 25-member panel put together by Gov. Bruce Rauner.

The commission didn’t propose specific legislative language, but did come up with some general ideas for a new “evidence-based” school funding formula. The Illinois State Board of Education created a sample “Evidence Based (Funding) Model” that it placed on its website using several school districts as examples.

Chafee immediately began computing the impact of the sample model on her school district and others.

Her calculations revealed once again that her child’s school district, along with many others, would lose money and increase the tax burden on property owners.

“The negative impact that this proposed funding change will have on the South Cook Region and on other communities with high property tax rates must be better understood and further discussed before a funding bill is introduced and before it reaches a vote,” Chafee states in a letter to legislators.

Chafee notes that one of the stated goals of the funding reform commission was to hold school districts harmless under any new formula, but that seems to be pretty near impossible given the additional goal of freezing property taxes that seems to be gaining popularity in the Legislature after it became a campaign issue for Gov. Bruce Rauner.

There is talk of adding about $500 million to the state’s school budget (a giant leap of faith given the fact that Illinois has been unable to pass a budget for 18 months), but even if that were to happen Chafee’s calculations indicate many school districts would suffer.

Manar said he’s asked many questions about the evidence-based school funding model but can’t seem to get clear answers from even its most ardent proponents. He says no one has run the numbers on what a property tax freeze would mean to school districts throughout the state. Chafee’s calculations, he said, once again seem to be accurate.

As far as I can tell, Chafee has no political agenda. She seems to understand that the state’s current school funding formula is inadequate and unfair. She simply believes Illinois residents ought to be armed with accurate numbers before any new law is passed.

I say don’t fret. Illinois politicians have been promising school funding reform, which is greatly needed, for years. They talk big and do nothing.

Email: philkadner@gmail.com

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