For nearly a year now, I have observed with a cautious eye the efforts among a bipartisan group of Illinois senators to consider how our state might better support public schools and the students they serve.
I supported the principles of the report issued earlier this year by the Senate Education Funding Advisory Committee that recommended a more equitable, adequate, transparent and accountable distribution of resources to school districts. And I was heartened to see the filing of the Illinois School Funding Reform Act of 2014 (SB16) put many of those principles into practice.
While there is more analysis to be done and discussion to be had, this represents the most comprehensive and credible plan in years to revamp how the state funds public education, a funding system that is nearly two decades old.
Consistency leads to predictability. SB16 would distribute more than 90 percent of state education funds through a single formula that consistently accounts for school districts' ability to support public schools with local resources.
The move to a single formula invites greater predictability for school districts that for years have had to piecemeal a financial forecast from dozens of line-items that each are susceptible to the ebbs and flows of annual funding levels.
Effectively directs state dollars to support student achievement. The legislation would direct funds to school districts based upon the academic needs and interests of the students they serve.
As proposed, a base amount would be allotted for every child with an additional funding "weight" assigned depending upon whether a student is academically gifted or struggling to surmount the challenges of poverty among other factors. At the high school level, additional funding would be available for students who earn a 3-out-of-5 on an Advanced Placement exam or complete a career pathway program.
Transparency is vital. As proposed, the legislation would make clear how much state funds flow to every school district and how much is intended to serve specific groups of students. It then accounts for these funds at the school level. This helps educators, families and taxpayers understand how their local schools are supported.
It is important to be clear about what the measure does and what it doesn't do. SB16 focuses on how Illinois distributes education funds. The legislation sets aside questions for how much Illinois invests in public education as a matter for the budgetary process. While both the "how" and "how much" matter, it is fitting and appropriate that we fix the "how" before we address the challenge of "how much."
The changes set forth in the Illinois School Funding Reform Act of 2014 can be accomplished in a revenue-neutral manner. If done well, they provide a sound basis upon which to increase resources if and when additional funds become available.
Much has been made of the question concerning who wins and who loses in this proposal. More will be known when the district-by-district analysis by the Illinois State Board of Education is completed in the coming weeks. Such details publicly released are important for elected officials, educators and taxpayers to consider.
For now, I appreciate the caution by Sen. Andrew Manar, a Bunker Hill Democrat, who co-chaired the Education Funding Advisory Committee and sponsored the legislation. He made the point that a winners-vs.-losers paradigm presumes there are winners in the current education funding system, a system that ranks among the most regressive and unaccountable nationwide.
Virtually all who have examined our current state education finance system conclude there must be a better way.
The Illinois School Funding Reform Act of 2014 is a good starting point.
Jeff Mays is a member of the Quincy Public Schools Board of Education and president of Illinois Business Roundtable, a nonpartisan association of CEOs formed to study public policy issues facing the state.