Deputy Executive Director Ben Schwarm leads the Advocacy/Governmental Relations Departments of the Illinois Association of School Boards.
Another legislative panel in the State Capitol has taken a stab at designing and financing a new school funding distribution formula. In 2016, Governor Bruce Rauner convened his Illinois School Funding Reform Commission, comprised mostly of legislators, and headed up by his Secretary of Education, Elizabeth Purvis.
When the panel was announced, one could almost hear the eyes rolling in school board rooms and district administrative offices across Illinois. Really? Another task force? Write up the report and throw it in the pile along with the reports from the numerous House and/or Senate task forces! These include the Education Funding Advisory Commission (2013), the Education Funding Advisory Board (2002), the Fair School Funding group (Alliance partners and the teachers’ unions in 1997), the Blue Ribbon Commission on School Funding (Governor Edgar et. al. in 1995), the Better Funding for Better Schools Coalition (which pushed for passage of SB 750 in 2008), and the Task Force on School Finance (1990).
Along with the numerous commission and task force attempts to comprehensively change our funding formula, there have been several lawsuits filed that have charged that the system should be thrown out altogether based on constitutional grounds. A lawsuit was filed in 1968 claiming that the property tax system that funded schools was unfair (thrown out by lower court). Another in 1973 claimed that the state needs to provide at least 50 percent of public school funding (struck down by the Supreme Court). In 1995 a suit by the Coalition for Educational Rights claimed that the funding was not efficient (defeated with the lower court citing the 1968 decision). A 1999 case claimed that the system does not meet the minimally adequate standard, based on building conditions in East St. Louis (dismissed by lower court). A 2008 case was based on the claim that the system violated civil rights (dismissed citing the 1995 case). And in 2010 a suit was brought claiming the system violated the equal protection clause (struck down by the Supreme Court). Apparently this avenue for change has not fared well.
Is this new panel a legitimate effort?
Make no mistake, the members of this commission have taken this task very seriously and have committed hundreds of hours in meeting and preparation time. As have the members of all of those commissions and task forces of the past. But correctly identifying the problems, crafting the solutions, and finding enough legislators to all vote for the same proposal has been proven difficult over the years.
For those involved in or following the commission meetings that have been doing this type of work for a while (and there are several of us), it can seem like a case of déjà vu or living the movie Groundhog Day. Many ideas mentioned and “what-ifs” seem groundbreaking to this new group taking on such a daunting project for the first time, but in most cases the same questions and ideas were brought forth in each of the panels in the past.
There are common themes to the progressions of school funding commissions:
- Use all due diligence in researching our state funding system;
- Study and compare those funding systems in other states that might be applicable (usually by paying for and bringing in a national school funding consultant);
- Find consensus among the commission members on what should be included in the final product; and
- Navigate through those issues that are the most divisive politically, philosophically, geographically, and culturally.
It is this last point that often leads to the demise of the finished product.
Issues arise that are controversial (for example forced school district consolidation, limits on what a local school district can levy or access from property taxes, pension diminishments or cost shifts). Arguments ensue over the balance among school board rights versus employee rights versus student needs versus taxpayer rights.
So, yes, this is a legitimate effort to find a reasonable solution to our school funding quagmire, but the task is difficult and these commission members are facing the same hurdles as their colleagues who preceded them.
So what is the solution?
When you look at the reports from all of the school funding reform task forces, committees, and commissions, they look amazingly similar. All of them recommend property tax relief, regional cost indices, hold harmless provisions, focusing on school districts with lower property values and higher poverty concentrations, and addressing at-risk students. Of those panels that tackled the revenue side, all recommended increasing the income tax rates and broadening the sales tax rates. Many of the panels added to their reform lists school consolidation, increased school district accountability, and collapsing the mandated categorical funding grants.
One consensus of most legislators and education groups over the past year or two is that our funding formula should target those school districts in the most need, generally districts in low property wealth areas and/or with high concentrations of poverty students. This current panel seems have agreed on that, as well as regional cost indices, leaving transportation funding outside of the general formula, special assistance for English language learners, transparency, and accountability.
The evidence-based funding model, recommended by Vision 20/20 and the Illinois Association of School Boards, addresses most all of the above-mentioned provisions. It also uses research, data, and best practices to drive the funding formula so the funding is most meaningful for student success. Because of this, the commission has seriously studied this type of funding model and has recommended similar provisions in its final report.
The commission also targeted the distribution of funds and not the generation of funds. Though the report mentions that the cost of the recommended reforms could cost upwards of $3.5 billion in the first ten years, there is no discussion or recommendations regarding revenue sources.
But as there are many facets to the school funding equation, the one that is most important — and that often is the first component to fall away from the discussion — is funding it. In truth, our current funding formula would likely be meeting most needs if it was properly funded. It does attempt to funnel more funding to those districts with less property wealth, but it is still using the foundation level of spending per pupil from 2008.
No formula will work properly with that track record of underfunding.
A basic concern is that if a new school funding formula is agreed to and implemented, whether that is a model as pushed for by Senator Andy Manar, or an evidence-based model as recommended by Vision 20/20, or something else — but is not properly funded — there will be blame put on the funding model and those who created it.
The commitment must be that whatever new plan is devised, it will be funded at a sufficient level.
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. The Commission’s work is detailed at https://www.isbe.net/Pages/Illinois-School-Funding-Reform-Commission.aspx.