While the war between Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan (who is also the state’s Democratic Party chief) continues in Springfield, progress apparently is being made on one most troublesome, long-term issues facing the state.
The Illinois School Funding Reform Commission, created by the governor in July, is less than two weeks away from Rauner’s deadline for issuing a report.
The 25-member commission includes elected officials from both parties appointed by the four Senate and House leaders and others selected by the governor. Its deadline to finish up its work is Feb. 1.
To my surprise (amazement, actually), state Rep. Will Davis, D-East Hazel Crest, who has been among the leaders in the fight to increase public school funding in Illinois for the last eight years, said he believes the commission is actually making progress, working together, and avoiding the petty political bickering that the public has come to expect between Republicans and Democrats.
Davis, a member of the commission, credited Beth Purvis, the Illinois education secretary hand-picked by Rauner, for leading discussion in a non-confrontational manner, allowing commission members the freedom to ask whatever questions they want and using her staff to provide research.
“Given the dichotomy of this state, the differences geographically, the disparities between rich and poor school districts, I think we’ve managed to reach agreements on a number of areas that will eventually appear in a report,” Davis said. “I’m not sure that will include language for legislation.
“I am very pleased by the work the commission has been doing on areas that are very problematic when you talk about funding K-12 public education in Illinois,” Davis said. “We have had very productive conversations about special education funding, property taxes, and hold harmless provisions that would have to be included in any eventual bill so that the fewest school districts possible would lose money in any reform plan.”
Davis said he was amazed at the amount of agreement between state senators and representatives, Democrats and Republicans, from downstate and the Chicago region, who represent constituencies that are diverse.
“What we saw was that whether you represented school districts that were wealthy but had high property taxes, or school districts that were poor and were also hit with high property taxes, there was a general agreement that something had to be done to provide property tax relief to the people,” Davis said.
What everyone in Illinois should realize by now, and the governor has emphasized, is that Illinois relies more heavily on property taxes to finance public education than any other state in the nation. As a result, Illinois ranks last in the country in the share of public education funding it provides.
The disparities in education between rich and poor school districts in Illinois also are among the greatest in the nation.
Elected officials representing both political parties have promised for decades to change the school funding system.
But just as the state’s pension funding crisis was created over decades, governors and lawmakers for more than 30 years allowed the local property tax burden to mount while ignoring their constitutional responsibility to provide funding for the schools.
Expect to hear the words “evidence-based funding” repeatedly as the commission’s work nears completion. This is a school financing theory developed by two professors that says a formula can be created that establishes an adequate level of funding for every student, while demanding results in exchange for money spent.
It’s the popular theory. It sounds good because it would mean well-financed schools that provide a quality education. I’m a skeptic.
After one special panel was tasked with solving the school funding problem, it resulted in the state creating the Education Funding Advisory Board, which sets minimum mandatory foundation levels of per pupil funding for students. That has nothing to do with adequate funding, just the bare minimum the state should provide given financial constraints.
The state has failed to meet that minimum foundation level since 2003.
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