Vallas: Shifting special education funds to other schools a bad idea

A state move to shift some special education funds away from schools that can raise more through property taxes was unwise because it pits the suburbs against other parts of the state, former Chicago schools CEO Paul Vallas said.

Those geographic splits ultimately will impede education funding reforms, he said.

"Making changes in the existing formula and trying to make a bad formula better without providing for meaningful increases in funding is only going to divide the education community," Vallas said. Vallas, a Palos Heights resident and 2014 running mate of former Gov. Pat Quinn, made the remarks to the Daily Herald following the Illinois State Board of Education's recent decision to push special education dollars into the general state aid pot. That source of money, used to offset the basic costs of educating students, is distributed through a formula based largely on a district's ability to levy local taxes.

Until this year, funding for programs such as special education and transportation have been based on the number of students in those programs, regardless of the strength of a district's property tax base.

By giving the general state aid fund an estimated $300 million more of the special education dollars next year, ISBE Chief Financial Officer Robert Wolf said the state should be able to increase the amount of general state aid per student, with school districts left on their own to determine how much should be apportioned for special education services.

"With special education, there needs to be more emphasis on accountability and on compliance," Vallas said. "There needs to be greater equity in the formula but it needs to be part of a long-term funding solution."

Since the school funding formula was put into place in 1997, increases in spending on specialized programs have outpaced increases to general state aid - which funding reform proponents say results in the poorest districts hurting the most.

Lawmakers annually set a minimum required to meet the basic cost of educating students per year, now $6,119 per student. However, recent budget woes due to rising public pension costs have meant Illinois has failed to meet its commitment since 2011.

Under the change approved by the board, districts with rich property tax bases could lose up to $106 per student per year. An initial analysis by the state board shows the change would decrease the amount of state funding for dozens of districts in suburban Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry and Will counties.

Schaumburg Township Elementary District 54, which spends $13,278 per student, would lose $61 per student in state funds per year under the shift. Barrington Area Unit District 220, meanwhile, which spends $16,178 per student, would lose $79 per student with the change.

Palatine District 15 would lose $52 per student, per year from the state. It spends a total of $12,363 per student each year.

Districts with more low-income students and lower property tax bases would see gains. Elgin Area School District U-46, which spent $10,672 per student this year, would gain an average of $289 per student in state funds. Indian Prairie Unit District 204 in Aurora, which spent $11,075, would see gains of $168 per pupil from the state.

Illinois' current funding formula often is regarded as outdated, but the state's divided government has found little consensus to fix it.

Echoing GOP Gov. Bruce Rauner's calls in last week's State of the State Address, Vallas says boosting overall education funding and then fixing the formula is the only surefire path to change.

"There's a consensus that schools are underfunded and a consensus that there's an inequity," he said. "But you have to deal with redistribution after you've dealt with funding adequacy."

Change cuts funding to some schools, raises others

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