SPRINGFIELD -- A bipartisan collection of lawmakers has come together to pitch something not accomplished in years -- a change in Illinois' school funding formula that would narrow the gap between the amount spent on students in richer and poorer school districts.
The caveat? It's an election year, so chances that lawmakers will ultimately act on the plan are in doubt.
The proposal, presented by Democrats and Republicans on a Senate education committee this month, would put almost all state education funding into one pot, then require districts to demonstrate need before receiving part of it. The current method factors in a district's poverty for some types of state aid, but not others, and it treats funding for Chicago schools differently.
Backers say it's time to act on changes, with a tough budget year ahead in which further cuts to school funding are a real possibility. The issue has support from lawmakers around the state, and there is hope that Chicago officials will embrace the changes in exchange for more stable funding, even though it could mean millions of dollars less for the city's schools.
"We have to get the distribution formula right. What should it focus on, where should our priorities be?" said state Sen. Andy Manar, a Bunker Hill Democrat who co-chaired the committee.
Manar says the issue of equity in school funding must be addressed before a conversation about whether schools are adequately funded. During lean times, wealthier districts with more property tax revenue have an advantage over poorer districts, and can more easily offset cuts in state aid.
Manar said he plans to introduce legislation based on the bipartisan proposal by March.
Still, broad support in the Legislature could be hard to come by in an election year, said Steve Brown, spokesman for House Speaker Michael Madigan, a Chicago Democrat who hasn't yet committed to support the plan.
"It's an ongoing conversation," Brown said. "But I'm not sure that anybody's developed an alternative that would win majority approval and bipartisan support."
Lawmakers -- particularly in moderate, property-rich districts -- could look to appease taxpayers reluctant to give up the current system as they wage re-election battles.
"Realistically, I think we're going to end up waiting," Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno of Lemont said.
As it stands now, Illinois schools get state money in a variety of ways. General state aid, the money used to offset the basic cost of educating students, is based on a formula that factors in poverty levels. This year, 41 percent of the $6.7 billion the state spent on preschool through 12th grade education was on general state aid.
Districts also get grants to use on programs like special education, transportation and vocational training, which don't factor in poverty. Districts must submit expense claims for those programs and are reimbursed based on the number of students they serve.
The exception is Chicago, which receives a percentage of all state education dollars to spend at its own discretion. As a result, critics charge, it has received hundreds of millions more than if it were held to the same standard as other districts.
The state's school funding formula hasn't changed since the late 1990s, but over time increases to spending on specialized programs have outpaced increases to general state aid, resulting in the poorest districts often hurting the most.
Meanwhile, an increasing deficit and a growing unfunded pension liability diverted money from schools and social services, further exacerbating problems. The State Board of Education says that schools have endured more than $800 million in cuts since 2009.
It could get worse if lawmakers allow the temporary state income tax increase to expire as scheduled in January, which would mean the loss of an estimated $1.5 billion in revenue.
As an example of the current system, Vienna Unit School District, a deep southern Illinois district with more than half of its 430 students living in poverty, spent an average $5,200 per student last year, according to the State Board of Education. Superintendent and Principal Greg Frehner says cuts in state funding over the last few years have resulted in staff layoffs, transportation headaches, and elimination of programs providing students' extra help.
"We're just barely covering salary and textbooks," he said.
Meanwhile, New Trier schools in Winnetka spent an average of $12,725 per student last year because of a wealthier tax base combined with state funding, state board data show. In that district, only 3 percent of the 4,200 students live in poverty.
Former Republican Gov. Jim Edgar, who oversaw the last change to the state's school funding formula, said the new effort is different from others because it has support from legislators of both parties.
"It will require setting aside politics to support a system that better serves children, particularly those most in need," Edgar wrote in a Feb. 6 op-ed column in newspapers around the state, including the (Springfield) State Journal-Register.
Another hopeful sign: Chicago Public Schools officials testified at the committee's December hearing that they would be in favor of being integrated into the same formula as the rest of the state.
Officials indicated they could accept fewer dollars in order to have a more stable source of state funds each year.
Robin Steans, director of Chicago-based education think-tank Advanced Illinois, said Chicago officials, as well as others in the education field realize there are deep inequities.
"Any funding solution has to be thought about comprehensively," Steans said.
Chicago, state Rep. Will Davis, vice chair of the House education appropriation committee said, "doesn't educate the same number of students that it did before."
"While likelihood that we can get this broad comprehensive package done is going to be challenging, I'm up for the challenge because we need to do something a lot different," he said.