This education-funding panel might just fool the skeptics

This week, Gov. Bruce Rauner announced a new, bipartisan commission charged with, drum roll please, creating a new school funding formula. This being Illinois, much of the immediate response ranged from sarcastic - as in "Be still my heart, the umpteenth kagillion state task force on education funding reform, that'll get it done" - to cynical - as in "Great, nothing stops progress like a bipartisan commission, a place where needed but politically controversial reforms are sent to die."

Given Illinois' track record on this issue, everyone who lives in the state and is over age 10 is entitled to entertain whatever cynical, sarcastic or otherwise snarky thoughts about this proposal as may pop into their minds.

And then they need to dismiss them, because this time there are compelling reasons to believe school funding reform is possible.

First, the governor's announcement comes on the heels of over 12 months' worth of extensive collaboration on developing a better school funding formula that's been undertaken by serious, thoughtful legislators representing both parties and all ideological world views, like conservative Republican Sen. Karen McConnaughay of St. Charles and progressive Democratic Sen. Toi Hutchinson of Olympia Fields.

Sure, collaboration hasn't generated headlines, but that's a good thing. After all, if elected officials working on the reform were doing it primarily to gain personal political advantage, you can bet there'd have been some very public press-oriented grandstanding about the process. In this case, silence truly is golden - or at least a positive sign.

Second, the legislators engaged in this collaborative work represent all areas of the state, from Chicago to wealthy suburbs to downstate. Anyone who follows this issue knows geographical divisions in Illinois are frequently more divisive and challenging to overcome than differences in party affiliation. Having all geographic interests at the table working in earnest to craft a school funding formula that works statewide is meaningful, promising, and unique.

Moreover, two of the real leaders of this effort, Rep. Will Davis, of Hazel Crest, and Sen. Kim Lightford, of Maywood, are no "Johnny-come-latelies" to the issue. Indeed, both have devoted much of their careers to school funding reform, having worked on it continuously since 2004.

Third, much of this effort to date has focused on using the "evidence based model" as the basis for Illinois' new school funding formula. That's promising politically, as well as from a good-government standpoint. Consider good government first. The evidence-based model was developed by university researchers and ties school funding to educational practices that have a statistically meaningful correlation to improving outcomes - like test scores, graduation rates and college enrollment rates - over time. If that sounds somewhat familiar, well, when Gov. Rauner announced this new commission, he expressed the hope it would focus on "the evidence of what works." Which illustrates why the evidence-based model is also good politics.

It doesn't matter whether an elected official is conservative, liberal or somewhere in between, supporting public policy that's based on what the research shows works is a no-brainer irrespective of world view.

Last, but certainly not least, all the data show Illinois desperately needs meaningful school funding reform. Currently, over two-thirds of the state's school districts are deficit spending - a dramatic increase from a decade ago - but not because they're profligate. Quite the contrary. Indeed, overall spending on K-12 in Illinois falls billions short of what's needed to educate most "non-at-risk" children, that is, children with a reasonable likelihood of academic success, while coming nowhere near what's needed to educate "at-risk" students, who are low income, have special needs, or are English language learners.

Making matters worse, Illinois' current, flawed school funding formula compounds the overall inadequate level of funding by distributing resources that are available so inequitably that the poorer a community is, the less its schools have to educate children.

So yes, it's OK to be skeptical about yet another school funding commission, but also OK to be optimistic.

Ralph Martire,, is executive director of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, a bipartisan fiscal policy think tank.

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