Theresa Kelly Gegen is the editor of The Illinois School Board Journal.
The perpetual discussion of school funding reform starts with the Illinois Constitution, in which Article X, Section1 states:
“A fundamental goal of the People of the State is the educational development of all persons to the limits of their capacities.
The State shall provide for an efficient system of high quality public educational institutions and services. Education in public schools through the secondary level shall be free. There may be such other free education as the General Assembly provides by law.
The State has the primary responsibility for financing the system of public education.”
These 76 words, from the Illinois Constitution adopted in 1970, have led to an entire industry of studies, committees, and proposals over months and years of debate and discussion. One of the keys to the conversation is what does the state’s “primary responsibility” mean? And how does that balance with local school governance?
The current Illinois funding formula starts with the foundation level, which is intended to represent the minimum adequate funding for each K-12 pupil through a combination of state and local funds. It’s a starting point from which the formula known as General State Aid is derived, based on local taxing ability and additional needs. In addition, the state is scheduled to make payments for mandated categoricals, which can only be used for a particular purpose, such as transportation or special education.
To that, school districts add a share of local property tax revenues, with the caveat being the enormous disparity in property tax income among districts in Illinois.
“What we need is for the state to provide a stable, reliable, and predictable commitment of school revenue,” says IASB Executive Director Roger Eddy. “We also need to take local resources into consideration.”
In 2010, Illinois ranked last in the nation in terms of contribution to K-12 public education: 28 percent of Illinois K-12 expenditures came from the state; the national average was 43 percent. Also in 2010, the state began pro-rating General State Aid to districts, which disproportionately affected poorer districts that got more from the state because they received less locally. In 2012, Illinois had the largest gap in funding (combined state and local revenue) between low- and high-poverty districts. In 2016, for the first time in seven years, Illinois fully funded education to the foundation level.
However, as the funding gap persists, and school districts unable to rely on property tax revenue fall behind communities that can, so does the discussion of school funding reform, with the goal of developing an adequate and equitable funding model.
School funding reform has again become a front-burner issue, raising expectations for change.
IASB and its School Management Alliance partners — Illinois Association of School Administrators, Illinois Association of School Business Officials, and Illinois Principals Association — have been involved in the conversation for decades. Various legislative funding reform proposals have been floated over the past three years, including those from Sen. Andy Manar (D-Bunker Hill) and Sen. Jason Barickman (R-Bloomington). Senator Kimberly Lightford (D-Maywood) has established a group of education stakeholders and legislators who are seeking to make changes to the current school funding formula. Vision 20/20, a collective of school leadership organizations in Illinois, backs an evidence-base-funding plan that addresses both equity and adequacy.
In addition, in July 2016 Governor Bruce Rauner formed the Illinois School Funding Reform Commission. The 25-member Commission is chaired by Illinois Secretary of Education Beth Purvis. Manar, Barickman, and Lightford are among the members. The Commission is tasked with making recommendations to the General Assembly to revise the current school funding formula by February 1.
“We’re going to have to attack equity and approach adequacy,” said Purvis at the Commission’s eighth meeting in September.
The Commission dug into the history of school funding in Illinois, school-funding formulas in other states, defining and reviewing principles of equity, explaining the intricacies of “hold harmless” clauses, a deep dive into Illinois property tax laws, funding for special populations, and numerous other topics. As the Commission’s work entered 2017, it examined the effects of implementing the 27-point research-based elements of the Evidence-Based Funding Model, as proposed by Vision 20/20, and looking at what increased achievement could mean to Illinois in the future. The Illinois School Funding Reform Commission’s report was submitted on February 1, but no legislation has been introduced at the time of this writing (for more information, see the commentary by IASB Executive Director Ben Schwarm, page 6).
“We need a plan that is effective, efficient, and quality,” says Illinois ASBO Executive Director Mike Jacoby.
And yet, two elephants in the room can’t be ignored. One, talk of funding formula reform inevitably leads to talk of “winners and losers.” The plans attempt to address this, but even with full or additional funding the perception will prevail. The other roadblock of pressing concern is the lack of a state budget in Illinois, for going on two years. Public K-12 education has been funded (for the most part) over that span, but no one can predict what will happen next. Without funding, the constitutional concept of ‘primary responsibility” is moot.
“Most models would work if you put money in them,” Eddy says. “No matter what it is, it will fail if we don’t fund it.”
Resources for further reading:
Constitution of the State of Illinois, Article X: Education www.ilga.gov/commission/lrb/con10.htm
General State Aid overview: www.isbe.net/funding/pdf/gsa_overview.pdf
Illinois Vision 20/20: illinoisvision2020.org
Illinois School Funding Reform Commission: www.isbe.net/ISFRC/