Governor Bruce Rauner has approved the portion of the state budget earmarked for public schools. His move yesterday ensures schools will be able to open on time.
The legislation even increases funding for education by more than $200 million dollars over the previous year. But the new money has strings attached.
It’s been years since Illinois funded schools at the proper level. This new budget is a mere 8 percent short of what the state actually owes school districts. That makes it slightly higher than last year’s level, but still lower than 2007, which takes some of the confetti out of the party. This legislation does, however, do more than just authorize funding. It actually changes the way the state distributes the money — setting aside $85 million to go to the neediest districts first, while the wealthiest wait till last.
This concept is known as “fill from the bottom.” It was pushed by a coalition of school officials and community activists called Funding Illinois’ Future. The group's organizer, Teresa Ramos, explained why just getting money wasn’t good enough.
“Really we needed to make sure that there were dollars targeted to the districts who had been receiving the worst cuts year after year for the past four years, and that’s how this fill-from-the-bottom strategy emerged,” she said. "It’s saying okay, we have got support the districts that have seen the biggest hits over the past few years, and so it goes to the neediest districts first and fills up.”
Illinois relies on local property taxes to support schools. In districts that don’t have enough property wealth to reach a minimum funding level — currently $6,119 per student per year — the state is supposed to kick in the difference. But for the past few years, Illinois has shortchanged each district by 11 to 13 percent. That across-the-board reduction has meant that the neediest districts suffer the greatest loss.
“You’ll see some districts who over the past few years have lost $30 per student, and other districts that have lost $1,100 per student and everything in between,” Ramos said. "And what you’ll find is districts that have higher percentages of low-income students, students who are English language learners, African American and Latino students, you’ll find that those districts have been losing more.”
That’s why the Funding Illinois Future coalition has been asking the Illinois State Board of Education, or ISBE, to change the way it handles cuts. At a recent meeting, they had school officials holding up signs displaying their loss per student.
“We needed a way to visualize the impact,” Ramos said. "We needed some other way to visualize that these losses were so severe. And the signs were the way to do that."
The debate at that meeting was around whether to distribute cuts using the pro-rata method or the per-pupil method, and the board post-poned a vote on that. But this bill specifies that money will be distributed using a calculation of the greatest loss per student.
“So certainly we are incredibly happy,” Ramos said. "I think this relieves a lot of pressure from districts. But it isn’t a substitution for a formula fix."
Does seeing this particular language in the bill represent an admission that the funding formula does need to be re-done?
“Yes, I think so,” Ramos said. "If it wasn’t, then we would’ve seen more of the same thing that we’ve seen over the past five years. And I think this is, you know, a good first attempt to try to figure out how we best serve the neediest students and I think we, you know, something certainly needs to be done.
"We might not all agree on what that is just yet, but certainly everybody is now in agreement where we might not have been before that something needs to change for our neediest and poorest districts in the state."
The education spending legislation Rauner signed effectively caps each district’s loss at $232 per student.