Illinois schools play wait and see on state funding

By Jean Lotus Staff reporter

State Sen. Andy Manar (D-bunker Hill) leads a “Fix the Formula” protest in Springfield in March, 2017. (Photo courtesy of Sen. Andy Manar Facebook)

Time is running out for a school-funding-reform bill passed by the General Assembly that had not yet been sent to Gov. Bruce Rauner’s desk for approval or veto at press time.

The newly minted Illinois budget contains language stating no K-12 school districts can receive state aid unless the amount has been derived from an “evidence-based model.”

SB1, passed by the General Assembly, maps out an evidence-based model with a formula ranking all of the state’s 860 school districts into one of four tiers. Costing an extra $3.5 billion to $6 billion, SB1 is meant to dole out per-pupil increases between $1 and $800 to districts. The formula takes into account factors such as percentage of low-income students, class-size ratios, technology access (or lack thereof) and location in the state, among other factors.

The bill was pushed through by Sen. Andy Manar (D-Bunker Hill), who has worked on school-funding reform for several years. Manar served as part of Rauner’s hand-picked education funding task force. GOP lawmakers have created their own school funding reform bills, SB1124 and HB 4609, which have not been voted on in the General Assembly.

The governor has said he would veto SB1 because it also includes a state payment of $221 billion for Chicago Public Schools pensions, which he has referred to as a “Chicago bailout.”

According to the SB1 formula, CPS will also receive another “adequacy target” boost of $70.8 million in additional funding for its 392,000 students.

Cahokia High School (Photo courtesy of Cahokia CUSD187)

Rauner has the option to use an amendatory veto for the Chicago portion of the bill. But he risks running out of time to make sure something is in place so schools can open their doors in the fall.

While the General Assembly voted to override Rauner’s vetoes for the budget and tax increase, lawmakers may also be more skittish about delaying school funding, especially as the summer winds down.

Rauner and other Republicans have pointed the finger at CPS for failing to adequately fund Chicago teachers’ pensions.

“CPS is always rattling their tin cup on the rail in Chicago and blaming anyone who won’t write them a blank check,” said conservative radio host Dan Proft.

Proft predicted the school funding bill will be held until the last minute by House Leader Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) to put pressure on Rauner.

“It’s political brinksmanship and delaying tactics to force the governor’s hand,” he said.

CPS already borrowed $275 million in June at higher rates to make the district’s mandatory pension payment. The CPS district is owed $400 million in overdue general state aid, according to the parent advocacy group Raise Your Hand.

Emily Bittner, press secretary for CPS, shot back that the state had been equally remiss underfunding pension payments to the Teachers Retirement System. Now the state had to increase funding for central and southern Illinois and suburban teacher pensions by $500 million this year.

“No one in Chicago called that a ‘downstate bailout,’” Bittner wrote in an online post on the Capitol Fax blog.

The new proposed law has a “hold-harmless provision” which will give wealthier districts time (at least a year) to budget for shrinking general state aid payments. This change was a compromise, added to avoid creating “winner” and “loser” districts when state aid was re-apportioned. But some GOP critics say the bill’s promises are too vague and the “loser” school districts will raise property taxes to make up shortfalls.

“Do you want to bank your child’s school on a politician’s promise that they’ll take care of you next year?” Proft asked.

Even outside Chicago, administrators at some low-income districts are already wondering whether the model will really address the Illinois problem of inequity in educational resources based on zip code.

Supt. Art Ryan, at Cahokia’s CUSD 187, said he was surprised to see his Metro-East district would only gain another $551,826 in funding, or $159 per pupil under the SB1 funding formula.

“Half-a-million is nice, but that’s not going to hire new teachers for 10 schools or lower our class sizes down to under 30 students,” Ryan said. The state has shorted the district about $14 million, Ryan said in an April interview.

Ryan was one of 17 superintendents from central and southern Illinois districts who filed a class-action lawsuit in April against the state and Rauner to demand more equitable funding.

Ryan’s district is hurting. Cahokia serves 3,490 K-12 students from the towns of Cahokia, Centreville, Sauget, and part of Alorton. The 70 percent low-income district’s students are more than 90 percent African-American, according to the Illinois Report Card.

Ryan said he believes his district looked better on paper because they had to cut teachers and programs, while neighboring Metro-East districts in Edwardsville and Granite City borrowed money to cover operational costs — assuming they would eventually be repaid by the state.

“Because of our low [Equalized Assessed Value], and other factors, we can’t borrow any more money. So we had to cut,” Ryan said. In March, the Illinois State Board of Education ranked CUSD 187 in the “financial review” category, the second-highest financial distinction.

Illinois ranks lowest in the country for state funding of education, relying heavily on property taxes. The state provides a minimum of about $6,000 per student, with the rest funded by local property taxes and federal funds. While some of Chicago’s collar county school districts can spend up to $15,000 per student for instructional spending, Cahokia spent $7,600 per pupil in FY 2015. The state average is $7,700 per pupil.

Under SB1, that per-pupil amount is also tied to enrollment.

Ryan says dropping enrollment in his district will perpetuate the structure that keeps poorer school districts offering fewer resources.

“I am so numb to this process, that I’m just going to keep moving until somebody says we don’t have money and we have to close the door,” Ryan said. “To sit and fret and stew, there’s just no point in it.”

School starts Aug. 14 in Cahokia.





— K-12 schools play wait and see on state funding —