State change cuts funding to some schools, raises others

 
 
Updated 1/7/2016 10:30 AM
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  • Tony Smith

    Tony Smith

The Illinois State Board of Education Wednesday unanimously moved to change the way the state sends special education money to school districts, aiming to increase base funding to poor districts with the resources that are currently available.

Districts with rich property tax bases could lose up to $106 per student per year through the change. Suburban members of the state board suggested it is perhaps the most practical solution available during a financially trying time.

"I think the fact that we're looking for a way for the state to be following its own laws by prioritizing general state aid is actually pretty admirable," said Curt Bradshaw, of Naperville.

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 fully meet its commitment since 2011.

New state schools Superintendent Tony Smith, who was appointed to oversee the state's 859 districts last spring, called the board's move "basically the most equitable way of distribution we've got."

By infusing the general state aid fund with an estimated $300 million in 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 districts left on their own to determine how much should be apportioned to each student for special education services.

Wolf said the agency spoke with the U.S. Department of Education about the move and was assured it was "permissible and was a viable method."

Illinois' current funding formula is widely regarded as outdated, but the state's divided government has found little consensus in recent years on how to fix it.

Under the current funding formula, Illinois schools receive general state aid funds to offset the basic cost of educating students through a formula factoring in poverty levels. But up 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 how poor or rich a district's property tax base is.

Since the 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.

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 and McHenry Counties.

Schaumburg Township Elementary District 54, which spends a total of $13,278 per student, would lose $61 per student in state funds per year under the shift.

Meanwhile, 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.

U-46 CEO Tony Sanders said Wednesday he was "pleased with the state superintendent and the state board taking the equitable distribution of resources seriously."

Sanders called it "a good first step, but I still don't think it's the comprehensive funding reform that we need."

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