Some suburban educators relieved, others troubled by school funding overhaul

 
 
Updated 8/29/2017 7:35 PM
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  • Elgin Area School District U-46 CEO Tony Sanders

      Elgin Area School District U-46 CEO Tony Sanders Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • Community Unit District 300 Superintendent Fred Heid

    Community Unit District 300 Superintendent Fred Heid

Some suburban school leaders are relieved but others are troubled by lawmakers sanctioning the latest school funding overhaul whose potential impact on individual districts is still unclear.

The Illinois Senate Tuesday approved the new system for paying for schools, which is expected to increase aid to the state's more than 800 districts and reduce disparities between rich and poor schools. The House approved the measure late Monday. It now goes to Gov. Bruce Rauner, who promises a speedy signing into law.

Many school districts expect to receive additional funding under the new model, though exactly how much is yet to be calculated by the Illinois State Board of Education under the revised funding formula. The agency hasn't completed its analysis of this latest version of the school funding legislation, a spokeswoman said.

"It's actually good for all school districts," Elgin Area School District U-46 Chief Executive Officer Tony Sanders said. "Every year we have to wait until June or July to figure out what the state is going to do financially for the next school year. Now, there will be a little more certainty for our budgeting. It will provide more stability in our funding."

U-46 stood to gain $12 million a year under the funding model known as Senate Bill 1, which was widely backed by educators and advocacy groups and whose provisions are largely included in the compromise model.

Under Illinois' current system, schools rely heavily on property taxes for funding. That's created large differences in per-student funding, with some wealthier districts spending four times more per student than districts with less property tax wealth.

Under the new plan, the state will determine how much money each district needs to adequately educate its students. The state then will look at how much money the district is able to generate from property taxes, and direct state aid first to districts that need the most money to reach their per-student spending target.

Under the new model, Chicago Public Schools' pension costs will be moved out of the education formula and funded separately through the state's pension system.

To compensate, CPS will be getting more money, taking away some funding from other school districts statewide, Sanders said.

A promising aspect of the legislation is a provision allowing for state review of the rules governing tax increment financing districts that siphon money away from schools and other local governments to spur economic growth.

"Suburban districts are getting tiffed to death," said Fred Heid, superintendent of Algonquin-based Community Unit District 300, which loses $18 million yearly to special taxing districts. "We support economic growth but there should be some limitations to the duration ... on the portability of a TIF, and a mandate that they actually pay out the remaining funds."

The plan includes $75 million in tax credits that could be awarded yearly to individuals and businesses in exchange for donations to private school scholarships. Donors cannot earmark those dollars for a specific student.

All students in kindergarten through 12th grades are eligible for the scholarship provided their household income meets federal poverty thresholds. Priority is given to students eligible for free and reduced lunch who live within academically failing districts or attend "focus" districts with at least one school performing in the bottom 10 percent of test scores or having a less than 60 percent graduation rate. That provision goes into effect in the 2018-19 school year.

U-46, the state's second-largest school district educating more than 40,000 students, has a few such "focus" schools, Sanders said.

Some educators don't believe the tax credit provision will sunset in five years as promised by the legislation.

"I think it's a big mistake," said David Larson, superintendent of Glenbard Township High School District 87. "That depletes money from public schools and creates winners and losers. It's going to increase segregation. It is going to increase classism. In the long-term ... it's going to promote a caste system of public education."

Larson fears students from low-income and minority families will be relegated to certain schools, while those with the means will attend schools with greater support ultimately diverting resources away from the neediest schools.

Yet, some believe the competition might force public schools to step up their game.

"Could we lose some students initially? Absolutely," Heid said. "At the end of the day, our job is to out-compete and outperform and show people that we offer a phenomenal product to develop well-rounded students."

• The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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