Pihos says Chicago schools get too much state money

SPRINGFIELD — A suburban lawmaker has proposed doing away with a unique arrangement under which Chicago Public Schools received $235 million more in state grant money in a single school year than it would have if it were held to the same standard as every other district in the state.

State Rep. Sandra Pihos, a Republican from Glen Ellyn, said it's unfair that Chicago automatically gets a percentage of all state education dollars to spend at its own discretion on transportation, special education, and nutrition while Illinois' other 859 districts submit expense claims and are reimbursed based on the number of students they serve. She filed a bill late last week that would require Chicago to adhere to the same rules.

“Block grants” were established for Chicago schools under a broader 1996 law meant to help the city's schools improve. Chicago officials successfully argued that the district was so big that the administrative burden and paperwork associated with submitting expense claims would be excessive. So instead, CPS has gotten an overall percentage of available state aid based on its size and the needs of its students and can spend the money as it sees fit.

Lawmakers and state education officials were unaware of how much more CPS was getting because the district did not submit a report to the state Board of Education until last month, after a 2011 law required it to report annually on how it spends its state grant money.

The preliminary report for the 2011-12 school year, which was obtained by The Associated Press, shows that CPS received $607 million in state money. But state board calculations, based on the number of students using those programs and the state's per-pupil reimbursement rate, show the district would have only received $372 million for that school year if its grants were calculated as they are for other districts. Not only has enrollment declined since 1995, but the needs of students within the district have also changed dramatically during that time.

Pihos, a former special education teacher, said the CPS report reveals a “gigantic error in funding” and said other Illinois districts are being shortchanged at a time when funds are scarce.

“It's been almost 20 years since they've been given that money without any accountability,” she told the AP.

Chicago district officials disputed Pihos' claim that there had been an error in funding, but they didn't respond to questions about whether they felt the block grants were fair.

Instead, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, the district's CEO, said Pihos' legislation “deflects responsibility from the core issue Springfield must tackle to provide fair funding to every school in Illinois — comprehensive pension reform.”

Pihos' proposal reflects long-running tensions between educators in Chicago and those in its suburbs and downstate over how state funding is distributed. The debate has gotten increasingly heated as Illinois' pension crisis has diverted money from schools and other parts of the budget, with more $852 million in education cuts between 2009 and 2013.

Downstate and suburban districts have complained for years that CPS unfairly gets the biggest slice of the funding pie, and still gets the same percentage it did in 1996, despite its smaller student population and shifts in needs statewide.

Chicago, in turn, points out that its teachers are in a different pension system than those elsewhere in the state. While downstate and suburban districts' teacher pensions are subsidized by the state, Chicago shoulders most of the cost of its teacher pensions.

Former Democratic state Sen. Susan Garrett spearheaded successful legislation to exclude CPS' annual block grant money from being used to fund bilingual education programs. To receive state dollars to fund bilingual programs, CPS now submits expenditure reports and is reimbursed in the same manner as all other districts. She also sponsored the 2011 law requiring CPS to file an annual report.

State Board of Education spokesman Matt Vanover said the state board wants to examine Chicago's block grants as part of current reviews of the state education funding.

“This is yet another reason why we need to be reviewing the entire K-12 funding process,” Vanover said.

As for Pihos' proposal, powerful House Speaker Michael Madigan would be more likely to consider a comprehensive education funding proposal than an individual piece of legislation, said Madigan's spokesman, Steve Brown.

Regardless, Pihos said she hopes that the funding system can be changed before schools begin to set their annual budgets next summer.

“We need to be making sure we're doing our due diligence,” Pihos said. If not, “we're going to be in the same cycle again next year.”

A police officer watches children board a school bus at Gresham Elementary School on the first day of classes in Chicago in late August. Associated Press
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