State superintendent warns of 'perfect storm' for districts

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) - As lawmakers consider revamping Illinois' outdated school funding formula, the state superintendent warned Tuesday that more education cuts would create a "perfect storm," putting low-income and minority students at risk.

The State Board of Education is asking lawmakers to provide an additional $730 million in fiscal year 2016 for pre-kindergarten through 12th grade funding, a 10.7 percent boost for schools in the state's 857 districts. But the request comes as lawmakers grapple with a roughly $6 billion budget hole next July stemming from the expiration of the state's temporary income tax increase, and struggle to find middle ground on a way to change the current funding formula, in place since 1997.

State Superintendent Christopher Koch told a House appropriations committee that the numbers of low-income and minority students are growing while budget cuts force districts to cut staff and eliminate various programs.

Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, who bills himself as an education reformer, proposed in his budget address last month to boost funding for early childhood and K-12 education for roughly $300 million. School districts have received less money than they're owed for the past four years, and Koch says many are already struggling to get by.

"Hurdles are multiplying as the number of low-income families continue to grow, and minorities have become a majority (of school students)," he said.

Koch's comments to the committee preceded testimony from Democratic state Sen. Andy Manar, the author of a controversial legislation that would change the way schools are funded. The plan, which boosts the funding of poorer, rural districts at the expense of wealthier suburban ones, passed the Senate last year but languished in the House during a difficult election year.

Under the current formula, Illinois schools receive state aid to offset the basic cost of educating students through a formula factoring in poverty levels. But districts also get grants for programs such as special education and transportation, which are based on the number of students in those programs.

Since the funding formula was last overhauled, increases in spending on specialized programs have outpaced increases to general state aid - which reform proponents say results in the poorest districts hurting the most.

Manar has refiled his legislation this year with changes in the attempt to help remove partisan and regional opposition for ease of passage -including adding a provision accounting for regional cost differences, such as higher teacher salaries in districts where the cost of living is higher.

Matt Vanover, spokesman for the state board, said a calculation on the bill's impact on individual districts should be available in the next week.

Republicans, including minority education spokesman Robert Pritchard, said they were encouraged by some changes in the proposal, which is "getting there."

Manar told the panel that the school funding formula is twofold, and needs to include both changing the current formula, as well as investing more in education.

"We should spend what we have wisely and we should invest more," he said.

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