ILLINOIS SCHOOL BOARD JOURNAL
'Con-Con' lost, so now what?
by Joseph Matula
Joseph Matula is an assistant professor of educational administration at Governor's State University and a former school superintendent in Illinois.
Now that the Constitutional Convention vote lost … and that's not a bad thing … where do we go from here? With school funding in Illinois no more equitable or adequate than ever, the loss of "Con-Con" now allows us to begin a public debate as to the value the people of Illinois hold for education.
Without the excuse of waiting for a Constitutional Convention, we can isolate the school funding issue and focus our attention solely on fixing it. But what does "fixing it" mean?
It means we need a shift from the emphasis on property tax to a more equitable method of funding. This would lessen the impact of a child's education being so strongly influenced by where that child lives.
Having been a superintendent for 26 years in Illinois, I always thought the school funding issue was 100 percent political. The legislative branch was obviously political, and so was the executive branch, the governor. They are all elected, so I understood their reluctance to change anything.
Whenever a school funding lawsuit worked its way to the state's highest court, I just assumed the Illinois Supreme Court lacked the political courage to make the tough decision and declare our disparate funding system as unconstitutional. Now, being a university instructor of school law and school finance, I am not so sure anymore. Taking a step back from a practitioner's role, I am able to more fairly assess the difficult decisions made by the court.
To determine how much we value an education in Illinois, we need to first look at the Illinois Constitution. Article X states: "A fundamental goal of the People of the State is the educational development of all persons to the limits of their capacities." Note that it's just a fundamental goal, and not a fundamental right. That's a critical distinction.
In Committee for Educational Rights v. Edgar, the Illinois Supreme Court acknowledged that the writers of the state's constitution chose to make education only a "goal" rather than a "right." The court said, "In this regard it is significant that while the framers of the 1970 constitution recognized the importance of 'the educational development of all persons to the limits of their capacities,' they stopped short of declaring such educational development to be a 'right,' choosing instead to identify it as a 'fundamental goal.'"
A goal is only something we strive to do. There is really no consequence if we fail to achieve it. Courts look at this type of classification under a level of judicial review called the "rational basis test." As long as the level of education currently provided in Illinois is rationally related to the language of the constitution, then it passes the rational basis test.
If education was a fundamental right, then the standard is elevated to a level called "strict scrutiny." Strict scrutiny is the highest level of judicial review. Should the measure of the Illinois system of funding education be held to a low standard of judicial review or to the highest level? That is what the people of Illinois must decide.
With more than 850 public school districts in Illinois, we should focus on fixing the least funded school district in the state and ensure that it has an adequate level of funding. How can we say education is important to the people of Illinois when we have hundreds of school districts receiving an inadequate level of funding? We can't even fund a foundation level to that proposed by the Educational Funding Advisory Board (EFAB).
This school year, the foundation level is only about 85 percent of EFAB's findings of an adequate level of funding. Given the annual adjustment recommended by EFAB, the foundation level should be more than $7,000 per pupil, rather than just under $6,000 this year … roughly a difference of $1,000.
Let's take a hypothetical school district with three schools, grades Pre-K-8, with 1,000 students. A difference of $1,000 per student for 1,000 students is $1 million.
This district would average 100 students per grade. It could hire one additional teacher per grade or 10 teachers. If the teachers' average salary was about $45,000 plus $5,000 for insurance, each additional teacher would cost about $50,000. Ten teachers would cost $500,000. That's only half of the $1 million above!
Let's add an additional reading specialist, an additional math specialist and lower the class sizes in grades pre-K through 2 with another four teachers. That's six more teachers at $50,000 each or $300,000. That still leaves $200,000!
What other improvements could we make? A registered nurse would cost about $35,000 per school year. If our hypothetical school district already had one certified nurse in the district, $70,000 would hire two more registered nurses for the remaining two buildings. That still leaves $130,000!
Let's make sure we offer activities, clubs and intramurals beyond the typical interscholastic programs. This is an area where a wide disparity exists among what schools can offer their students. Some high schools offer up to 124 clubs and activities for their students and get more than 80 percent participation. Others are able to afford only 30 clubs and activities. Since our hypothetical 8th grade could not match a high school, let's budget at least $50,000 for sponsors of clubs and activities to widen the offerings for more students. That still leaves $80,000!
Maybe the best use of the remaining $80,000 is the continued professional development of teachers and other staff members. All this for only $1,000 per student!
How can we expect the Illinois Supreme Court to come up with any different conclusion when we the people of Illinois don't even think enough of education as to make it only a goal and not a fundamental right?
The purpose of this article is not to beat the drums for a tax increase but to encourage a debate to begin in Illinois as to the level of education we want as a minimum for the children of Illinois. Should the people of Illinois be asked to amend their constitution to declare: "A fundamental right of the People of the State is the educational development of all persons to the limits of their capacities?"
Should we change from making a quality education merely a goal to making it a fundamental right? Let the debate begin!
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