The spring legislative session in Springfield has been widely criticized because of the failure to pass a state budget. However, legislators accomplished something significant before leaving town. They passed a long-sought measure to reform the state’s inequitable school funding system.
That bill, known as Senate Bill 1, will soon land on Governor Bruce Rauner’s desk. As the leader of Chicago’s largest network of charter public schools, I strongly urge him to sign it. SB 1 is good for schoolchildren across Chicago and Illinois, whether they attend charter public schools or traditional public schools.
As many Illinoisans know, our state government provides the least amount of aid to public education of any in the country. This forces local school districts across Illinois to make up the difference through property taxes. This works fine for children who live in wealthy suburban districts. But it severely underfunds those children who happen to live in urban or rural districts without the property-tax base to provide adequate support.
This problem is even more acute for students in charter public schools, who under current state law can receive as little as 75 percent of the per-pupil funding of other public school students. SB 1 addresses this by making sure that all public school students in Illinois receive an adequate level of funding — whether they live in an affluent district or a poor one, whether they attend charter public schools or traditional public schools.
Under SB 1, no school district in Illinois loses money. In fact, nearly every district will receive an increase in funding from the state. Sensibly, the districts that are furthest from receiving adequate funding for their students will get the biggest increase in state funds. The additional funding ranges from an additional $900 per pupil in Waukegan to $193 per pupil in Chicago to $1 per pupil in Lake Forest, based on the needs in each district — such as the number of students living in poverty.
Indeed, Chicago is far from the top of the list when it comes to the increases in state funds under SB 1. This is not a Chicago bailout. It is good public policy.
This additional funding isn’t targeted just to urban districts. It goes wherever the need is. In fact, two-thirds of such districts with proposed increases in funding are located downstate and one-third in suburban areas. Meanwhile, the bill provides for some property-tax relief to those districts with high tax rates.
Rather than the current, complicated funding formula that is practically incomprehensible to taxpayers, SB 1 creates a single, streamlined formula — treating all of our state’s school districts the same. And as new state funds become available, they will flow to the most underfunded districts — making sure that today’s gaping financial inequality among Illinois school districts will not recur.
Reforming our state’s inequitable public school funding formula is critical to Chicago’s charter schools because they closely reflect the population of Chicago Public Schools as a whole. According to the most recent data, 96 percent of Chicago’s charter school students are African-American or Hispanic. Eighty-eight percent are eligible for a free or reduced-price lunch (compared to 81 percent in open-enrollment schools across the district). And 14 percent of the charter public school students receive special education services, about the same percentage of traditional CPS schools.
Many individual charters have waiting lists of thousands of students, whose families want a choice in the public schools their children can attend with their tax dollars. All public schools are affected by the inequitable state funding formula — charter and traditional alike — which punishes precisely those schools serving minority and low-income kids.
Gov. Rauner will soon have a historic opportunity to right this longstanding, indefensible wrong — by signing SB 1 and changing the state’s education funding system for the better. No student in our state will receive less funding under this bill. But those students with the least resources will be helped the most — and that is something we should all be able to support.
Governor Rauner, on behalf of Chicago schoolchildren, please sign SB 1.
Michael Milkie, a former CPS teacher, is the co-founder and chief executive of the Noble Network of Charter Schools.
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