Editorial: Don't misuse 'adequacy' in setting school funding levels
When Illinois legislators agreed to evidence-based funding for schools last year, it was nothing short of historic -- the first time ever in Illinois that legislation was passed that seriously addressed the inherent unfairness of how public schools are funded.
The school funding formulas were designed to create additional state funding for poorer districts, while maintaining a consistent level of funding for districts with more property tax wealth. To use a baseball analogy, it was a Gold Glove moment.
But, the legislature then followed up with a two-base error.
In a special session after agreeing to the initial evidence-based funding formula, legislators added a provision that allows residents of affluent districts to demand some of that money back via referendum. Today, 18 school districts in the suburbs are vulnerable to tax-cutting referendums because the state Board of Education formula has determined that they exceed the "adequacy" level of education funding.
In Lisle, a grass-roots drive is already under way to put such a referendum on the April ballot.
We've always been in favor of democracy and empowering the electorate, but in this case a referendum would be counterproductive. Those leading the drive to repeal property taxes in Lisle say this is about a school district that squirreled away excess reserve funds, enough to build a whole new school.
Excess reserves is a legitimate issue in some districts, but this isn't the tool to solve it. This is the hammer killing a flea, where the hammer is likely to hit more than the single intended objective.
The term "adequacy" was coined to define a level of funding that lower-income schools need in order to provide a solid education, not to shame districts that are offering more.
"The original intent was not to punish districts for additional resources," Bob Spatz told our Jake Griffin. Spatz is a school board member in Oak Park, and one of the architects of the original evidence-based funding formulas.
While the formula used to determine adequacy isn't exactly arbitrary (it takes into account regional cost of living differences) it is meant to be a guide for lower-income schools. The formula does not drill down into each individual district's finances to determine how frivolous -- or not -- that district is with money, or even how many extra resources a district needs to educate its particular student body.
Nor does any of this square with the promise made when evidence-based funding was passed, that no upper income or affluent district would be harmed.
As lawmakers work to refine this law, this provision should be reviewed. We hope community members won't use this legal loophole to diminish the standard of excellence for their schools to merely "adequate," instead of addressing a more specific financial issue, like the amount of savings amassed, directly as a local issue.