SPRINGFIELD — School funding inequities, long a struggle between have and have-not districts, will return full bore to the Illinois legislature early in 2015.
A new version of Senate Bill 16, which advanced with much input before being sent to the House where it was left to die in the final session of the year, will be filed again soon in both the House and Senate, Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, told the Illinois Business Journal. He’s hopeful of getting a measure passed that would address funding formulas before the start of the next fiscal year in July 2015. An estimated $6.7 billion in state aid is at stake.
“We had a year’s worth of work in the Senate before we took a vote on May 27, right before the spring session adjourned. We had hearings and meetings and issued a report. We put the Senate bill through the amendments process. The House didn’t have time to take it up, which we expected anyway.”
By the time of the veto session in November a competing bill had been drafted in the House, opposing the passage of Senate Bill 16. As a result, neither measure advanced.
Manar said a lot of good, constructive criticism has been received and is being factored into the new bill. Among those who have weighed in are principals, educators, teachers, superintendents and legislators from both parties.
Unchanged since 1997, the current education funding system only distributes 44 cents for every $1 invested in education on the basis of district need.
Senate Bill 16 would have changed the funding formula to require the state to make 92 percent of public school funding need based.
The state contributes about 25 percent of the total dollars that support its schools, compared to up to 50 percent in other states, placing a large strain on local districts, Manar said.
“It’s become a daily conversation. There is not a day goes by that I don’t have a conversation with someone in the state about the need to change the current system and about how that change could come about,” he said.
He said he asked for criticism of the bill on April 2, the day the bill was introduced in its entirety.
“We didn’t introduce it at the last minute. I was hoping that we would receive constructive criticism, and that it would produce a statewide conversation for the first time in 17 years — since Jim Edgar was governor. We have forced this conversation onto the legislature in a constructive way. It’s a tough one. How do we change what is without a doubt a broken system?”
The politics of the process are changing in the next General Assembly, starting with this month’s inauguration of Bruce Rauner, the Republican who wrestled the governor’s seat from Pat Quinn. Manar said he’s had brief conversation with the governor-elect and believes that Rauner recognizes the plight. But Rauner also campaigned on reining in Illinois’ spending ways.
Rauner has said he would re-prioritized tax dollars so they would go less toward administration and bureaucracy and more toward teachers and classroom technology. He was critical of Quinn for signing budget bills that cut education spending.
Money will be the ultimate challenge, Manar agreed.
“Obviously the state’s finances don’t put us in a position to have funds available to mitigate any of the negative changes that a district might feel because of the bill,” he said. At one time, if a district was losing money because of a change in the state aid formula, there was extra money appropriated to hold a district harmless or keep its losses at a minimum.
“Now, we don’t have that luxury,” Manar said.
The next version of Senate Bill 16 will contain a few modifications that came out of the House during veto session.
“We would have a regional adjustment of state aid to account for the fact that it costs more to hire a teacher in a place like Downers Grove than it does in a place like Mulberry Grove,” Manar said. “Other states have adopted this and it’s proven successful. Personnel costs run 70 percent to 80 percent of a school district’s budget and we should recognize that in our state aid formula.”
Manar said the bill cannot be categorized as Downstate vs. Upstate: There are districts up and down that belong to the support coalition — or oppose reform. One key district is neither for or against.
“The Chicago Public Schools are neutral on the bill,” Manar said. “There are things that they think are good and some they think are not. For example, we get rid of the Chicago provision that says Chicago schools get a cut off the top before any school gets their money. But we also recognize their biggest cost drivers, such as bilingual education.”
Manar has talked to Jim Edgar, who was governor the last time the formula was changed.
“Gov. Edgar has reminded me at many points along the way that there is not a more complicated and inherently political issue in Illinois than school funding.
There is a reason it hasn’t been done in 17 years — the reason is, it’s incredibly difficult.”
Much of the effort aims to align Illinois with other states in the nation.
“We’re last when it comes to the state portion of funding public education,” Manar said. “We’re last when it comes to the amount of money we have in our budget devoted to school districts that have high rates of poverty. On so many metrics we are near the bottom of the list. There are always a few people in the state defending the status quo. We have to understand that if our state system isn’t healthy and if our state system of education isn’t serving everyone ... then the entire state loses whether you live in downstate or the suburbs.”
Equity matters to outcome, he said. And that goes to opportunities for kids.
“I welcome the criticism because we have to get this right. But we can’t not have the conversation,” Manar said. “We have districts with incredibly high tax rates but spend very little money per pupil, which is an upside-down equation. And we have districts that are experiencing incredible rates of poverty in Downstate.”
The legislation will be worded so it could be in place by Fiscal Year 2016, which starts July 1. The bill would be phased in over four years, so that school districts can adjust.
“It’s imperative that we address the finances of the state’s most struggling schools. We’ve reached a critical point where more and more districts are on the financial watch list not because of poor decisions they make but because of the nature of state aid,” Manar said.
Manar, who has school-age children, began a personal crusade to reform funding after being elected in November 2012. Before he was sworn in that January he met with area superintendents.
“They gave me their snapshot of their finances. I walked out of that meeting with a very clear view of how deep the financial situation is — not just the districts I was going to represent in the Senate but so many districts across the state. I made a decision that day that something had to change. And I was going to be part of the effort to change it.”
Since that time, supporters formed a statewide coalition, Funding Illinois’ Future. That coalition has its own website and video, which notes that wealthier school systems pay up to $15,000 per pupil’s education, while poorer ones pay less than $10,000 per pupil.
Senate Bill 16 is not a budget bill. It simply changes the direction of how money is spent.
“We said, as a bipartisan group, that we should spend the money we have better. Then, we should discuss spending additional money on public schools,” Manar said.
The opposition that rose up during the veto session complained that too much money would be stripped from wealthier schools.
State Sen. Chris Nybo, a Republican from Elmhurst, said in a statement that a series of public forums in several suburban communities this fall sent a clear message to state lawmakers that “suburban residents are not willing to increase their already high property taxes or compromise their children’s educational resources.”
During a House of Representatives committee hearing about Senate Bill 16 in November, the online witness slips of opponents outnumbered proponents by six to one. In addition, more than 8,500 people signed online petitions against Senate Bill 16, Nybo said.
Manar said he is willing to work with anyone who agrees to the principle of fundamental fairness. “Those who don’t agree with that principle should stop pretending,” he said.
Given that the first serious conversation on the Senate measure occurred nearly two years ago, the time to move forward is now, he said.
“We’ve done years worth of studying this issue,” he said. “I don’t think we should wait another 17 years to get this done. Anyone who calls for more study and more time is just skirting the issue. We have mounds and mounds of paper telling us what we need to do. We will not stop until it’s done. There are only a select few that benefit from today’s system, at the expense of the masses.”