Democrats introduce bill to change school funding

SPRINGFIELD - A group of Democratic lawmakers Wednesday introduced a long-awaited piece of legislation that would dramatically change the way schools are funded in Illinois for the first time since 1997.

The sponsors called the measure the most comprehensive way to ensure equity across the state in both good and bad budget years but indicated there's still work to do in gaining broad support in both chambers on the regionally divisive issue.

"This is a dramatic and appropriate departure from the status quo," state Sen. Andy Manar, chief sponsor of the legislation said, calling the current formula "complex and unpredictable and complicated."

The legislation would streamline the state's school funding formula to require districts to demonstrate need before receiving money, a significant shift from the current method that factors in a district's poverty for some types of state aid but not others. Under the plan, 92 percent of total state education funding would be distributed by factoring in districts' poverty levels. Only specialized programs for special education and early childhood education would be exempted from the formula. And, for the first time in decades, funding for Chicago Public Schools would be treated under the same formula as the rest of the state.

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.

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.

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.

"Your ZIP code should not dictate your quality of education," state Sen. Melinda Bush, a Grayslake Democrat, said Wednesday.

The proposal developed out of a report released by a bipartisan Senate education committee, which held a series of hearings around the state on the issue.

There are some early signs that the proposal could advance as lawmakers simultaneously debate a number of tax and spending questions this spring session.

Chicago Public Schools has indicated its support for the change, testifying before the committee that it would be in favor of being part of the same formula as the rest of the state. Additionally, former Republican Gov. Jim Edgar - who led the state at the time of the last school funding overhaul - has indicated he supports the legislation.

But other hurdles remain, as Senate Republicans and Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan have not yet signaled support over the issue.

"We were not invited to join Sen. Manar's news conference. We did not receive the 400-page bill before it was filed last night. That being said, we welcome the discussion of fair education funding," Senate GOP spokeswoman Patty Schuh said.

"Folks are going to need time," Chicago Democratic Rep. Christian Mitchell, a supporter of the legislation, said.

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