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updated: 5/8/2014 12:29 AM

Funding downstate schools at expense of suburbs?

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  • Mount Prospect-based District 57 stands to lose 78.5 percent of its overall state aid under a proposal to overhaul Illinois' school funding.

      Mount Prospect-based District 57 stands to lose 78.5 percent of its overall state aid under a proposal to overhaul Illinois' school funding.
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Associated Press

SPRINGFIELD -- School districts in the Chicago and St. Louis suburbs would see major cuts to state aid while downstate schools would see gains under a proposal that would drastically overhaul Illinois' complicated school funding formula for the first time in almost two decades.

State Sen. Andy Manar of Bunker Hill said the state Board of Education's database detailing the estimated impact to the state's 860 school districts, released Wednesday, more clearly illustrates that his proposal would provide equity to rich and poor districts across Illinois. Under the plan, the vast majority of total state education funding would be distributed by factoring in districts' poverty levels.

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But providing the specifics of how much money school districts stand to gain or lose also makes clear the political risk for lawmakers in voting for such legislation during an election year, particularly in the well-heeled suburbs, where lawmakers in vulnerable swing districts may be hesitant to anger voters.

"It looks like, yet again, this is an attempt to reach into the suburban pockets to solve other people's problem," Republican state Sen. Matt Murphy, said in response to the numbers.

Schools in District 15 in Palatine, Murphy's hometown, would see an 87 percent decrease in overall state aid under the funds -- about a $13 million dip compared to how much they received in the 2011-12 school year, the year the state board used to make the calculations.

Similarly, schools in Skokie and Evanston would lose 85 percent of state aid under the new formula. Meanwhile, Galesburg schools could stand to gain a 30 percent funding boost -- about $5 million more a year than they receive now.

Schools in Red Bud, an Illinois suburb of St. Louis, would see an 83 percent decrease.

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, less than 45 percent of the $6.7 billion the state spent on preschool through 12th-grade education was on general state aid.

But districts also get grants to use on programs such as 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.

Since the last time the state's school funding formula was changed in 1997, increases to spending on specialized programs have outpaced increases to general state aid -- which proponents of the plan say results in the poorest districts often hurting the most, with wealthier districts getting more overall funding during tough budget years. The disparity in local tax dollars pouring into school districts, along with state aid, currently produces a wide range in the average amount various districts are able to spend educating their students.

"The circumstance that we have to account for is that we have districts that even if they wanted to, couldn't tax themselves enough to achieve equity," Manar told a Senate committee Wednesday. We have districts in the state that could not raise their property taxes enough to bring about equitable funding on their own. So, this isn't about punishing or rewarding. This is about accounting for that disparity."

The legislation passed out of committee Wednesday and could be voted on in the Senate as early as next week, Manar said.

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