Little chance state school funding overhaul will pass, lawmakers say
Support wanes for efforts to rebalance
SPRINGFIELD -- Despite a revamp to ease partisan and regional opposition, Illinois lawmakers now see little chance of passing legislation this session that would overhaul the state's outdated school funding formula for the first time in two decades.
The intent of the original bill was to increase state support for poor downstate schools, but sponsors revised it to reduce corresponding losses for wealthier school districts in Chicago and its suburbs. The revision would mean roughly $60 million less for downstate schools than in the original bill, with Chicago and its collar counties losing substantially less than first proposed, according to an Illinois State Board of Education analysis.
But the change has not significantly softened opposition to the bill, which lies chiefly among Republican lawmakers in the Chicago area. What's more, legislators from both parties say the timing causes a problem because their priority this spring is dealing with a roughly $6 billion hole in the state's general finances in the coming year.
"My sense is we don't see an education bill (come for a vote) this session," said House Republican Leader Jim Durkin of Western Springs, who represents Western suburbs. "How it fits in with this budget. ... I don't think it's something anybody's going to be contemplating soon."
Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan has established a special committee to consider the issue. But a top member of his leadership team, House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie, agreed that prospects for it were dimming.
"I think there's no question we're not going to have significant new resources going into public education this year," said Currie, a Chicago Democrat who said she spoke with one suburban district that warned it couldn't handle a loss of funds. "Without additional resources, this whole exercise is one in which you create paupers of (certain) school districts."
Few disagree the state's funding formula needs an update. A study released last month by The Education Trust, a nonpartisan advocacy group, found Illinois has the most unfair school funding system in the nation, with poor students receiving nearly 20 percent fewer state dollars than their wealthier peers.
Since the state's funding distribution formula was last overhauled in 1997, the imbalance between poor and better-off schools has increased as spending on specialized programs outpaced increases in general state aid to districts. Reform proponents say the poorest districts don't have the property tax base to supplement funding like Chicago-area schools do.
Under the original overhaul proposal by Sen. Andy Manar, a Bunker Hill Democrat, downstate schools would have gained $214 million in state funding, while schools in Chicago's collar counties would have lost $84 million. Chicago Public Schools would have lost roughly $38 million.
Under the revision, according to the ISBE analysis, downstate schools would gain $154 million -- roughly $60 million less than initially projected for the original bill. The Chicago and suburban school districts would face far smaller losses than under the original.
The new legislation also counts on an addition of $86 million to help boost so-called anomaly districts -- ones that have high property tax rates but are still spending less than average on their pupils through a combination of state and local dollars.
The difference comes largely from a revised mathematical formula accounting for regional cost differences, such as higher teacher salaries in districts where the cost of living is higher. State officials say suburban schools, on average, saw a 5 percent to 6 percent bump in funding with the "regionalization factor."
Manar's revamped proposal would still require schools to demonstrate need before receiving almost any state money by showing how much local revenue they have to spend on students. He conceded that his proposed amendment attracted less new support than he had hoped and illustrates the proposal's "difficult path."
Gov. Bruce Rauner, a proponent of education reform, said he did not support Manar's original proposal but has not commented on the revision. His education secretary, Beth Purvis, said in a statement only that "we look forward to participating in discussions to provide a high-quality educational opportunity to every student."
Rauner has proposed increasing school funding by $300 million next year, but his plan relies on savings in other areas and requires approval by the Democratic-led legislature.
State Sen. Pam Althoff, a Crystal Lake Republican who serves on a Senate education committee, called the proposal "commendable" but said it wouldn't be enough to win support from suburban lawmakers.
"It's not going to happen this session," she said. "It still needs a great deal of work."