Issue: Is the state’s new blueprint for school funding developed by a group of bipartisan lawmakers and other officials doable or is it a dream with the state’s current financial issues?
Local impact: The plan is supposed to make school funding more equitable between poor and rich school districts, but to do so the state would have to come up with an additional $3.5 billion to $6 billion to even the playing field. Some local district’s believe the proposal is more political grandstanding. Increased funding could mean higher property taxes, yet Gov. Bruce Rauner has toyed with the idea of a property tax freeze, which could cause greater issues with school funding.
PEKIN — The recently released proposal for a new funding formula would be a dream come true for school officials if the state’s nightmarish budget issues were resolved, but that doesn’t seem to be imminent.
On Feb. 1, a 25-member commission appointed by Gov. Bruce Rauner released a framework for funding schools more evenly. The framework would create funding targets for districts based on student’s individual needs, rather than the per student base-level in the current system.
Illinois contributes just 25 percent of the total funding for schools, leaving districts to rely on property taxes to make up the difference after accounting for federal contributions. This means students in low-income districts receive 20 percent less funding than their peers in wealthier ones, according to the report. The current formula hasn’t been updated since 1999, the Associated Press reported.
Pekin District 108 Superintendent Bill Link is excited about the proposal, though he knows it isn’t something that will happen in the near future.
“I think the movement on looking at revamping the system is a real positive step forward,” he said. “It appears to me that our government, the General Assembly and even the governor with his commission, I think have finally come to terms with wrapping their minds around (the fact that) what we currently have in place isn’t working — isn’t meeting the needs of the schools in our state.
“That’s all conceptual at this point. The practical questions that we have as superintendents is, ‘Where’s the funds going to come from?’ Because with this particular approach with evidence based adequacy model, obviously you would be looking at an increase in some funds flowing into some districts and right now with the struggles facing just funding what we’re supposed to be getting — that’s the big question mark.”
District 108 depends on property tax revenue and Corporate Personal Property Replacement Tax for 56 percent of its revenue. The current per student level is $6,119 per student. That was prorated for seven of the past eight years. In addition, districts have to pay for unfunded mandates such as special education, transportation and professional development. Link believes the district would get more state money because of its 60 percent poverty rate. The state poverty rate is 49.9 percent.
The district has 18.5 percent of its students with special education plans compared to the state level of 10 percent. Link said some districts may fight the new funding reform if they are to lose state aid, which would bog it down.
The idea of Rauner’s proposed property tax freeze is worrisome. Link said it all depends on how the freeze is implemented — are districts just cut off or is it a phase in and is it temporary or is it permanent? He said if the formula and property tax freeze “work hand in hand, it could be a situation that’s workable.”
Creve Coeur Superintendent Tony Whiston hopes lawmakers move quickly. State funding accounts for about 55 percent of the Creve Coeur district’s budget, according to the Illinois School Report Card.
“I eat lunch everyday with bright kids with lots of potential,” Whiston said of Creve Coeur’s pre-kindergarten to eighth-grade population. “I’d hate to see them walking across the stage for high school graduation before we have a fix.”
District 303 Superintendent Danielle Owens said she is disappointed that the commission did not bring forward an actual bill for the General Assembly to act on. She said, “It won’t matter what the plan is or how the formula changes if there is no money to truly fund it to the level it needs to be then it won’t be worth the paper it is written on.”
Owens said the timing is not right to release all of the details of the plan with the current budget crisis.
“Unfortunately, until our state can get a budget and, better yet, determine what revenue streams there are to fund what is in the budget all of these items are pipe dreams,” she said. “However, as educators, we continue to present plans and ideas of how to better do things in the hopes that someday the money will be there to do them.”
Tremont District 702 Superintendent Jeff Hinman said Illinois is first in the nation in its reliance on property taxes to fund schools.
“Obviously, that leads to huge inequities in available dollars and the best indicator to illustrate that zip code really does impact the investment available for our children,” he said. “The Funding Commission was charged with the responsibility of developing an alternative to an antiquated system. The funding component, specifically to ease the local property tax burden and place more responsibility on Springfield, rests squarely on the shoulders of our state legislators, who show no indication of any willingness to end the budget dysfunction plaguing the state.”
Follow Sharon Woods Harris at Twitter.com/sharrispekin
Peoria Journal Star reporter Pam Adams and the Associated Press contributed to this article.