Game of chance would do a better job of distributing funds to schools

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Veronica Anderson, editor

Veronica Anderson, editor

With all the vagaries that go into school finance in Illinois, the state might as well conduct one big game of budget bingo. It wouldn’t take much to get it going. Each school superintendent would get a game card with M-O-N-E-Y spread across the five columns.

Instead of numbers, the squares on the grid would specify certain education funding streams, such as capital projects, special education, poverty money and that basic building block of public school finance, foundation level funding. One wild card square would guarantee a district gets fully funded on all counts.

Forcing educators into a game of chance to fund their budgets every year probably would improve the odds that funding would be distributed fairly. That’s because Illinois fails the two tests of responsible school funding: Equity and adequacy.

As a result, Chicago Public Schools and hundreds of other districts are facing budget shortfalls that have few solutions other than massive cuts in classrooms. Here, the red ink adds up to $175 million. Chicago school leaders blame the state for failing to raise basic education funding to an adequate level, for underfunding its own mandates in special education and bilingual programs and for shortchanging Chicago teachers’ pensions.

Only 36 percent of the district’s operating budget is state funded; the national average is 50 percent.

Hitting that target here would bring Chicago an additional $560 million, a windfall that this year would have provided schools with an extra $1,300 per pupil. Doing so would also bring state lawmakers within striking distance of the minimum $6,405 per pupil spending level recommended by the Education Funding Advisory Board.

Many believed that when Democrats took control of state government, the stars had aligned in favor of school finance reform. As it has turned out, that is only wishful thinking.

The reality is that Gov. Rod Blagojevich has flat out refused to entertain a widely supported tax swap proposal—a recent poll pegged voter support at 69 percent—that would more equitably distribute school funds, making it possible for more districts to operate in the black and provide a decent education. House Speaker Michael J. Madigan has said he will not step out on a limb without the governor’s leadership. And Senate President Emil Jones, who has taken a strong and very public stance favoring the measure, cannot get it passed on his own.

Rather than weigh a small state income tax increase that would lower property taxes and raise more money for schools, the governor is gambling that every year, he’ll be able to find enough money for schools elsewhere in the state budget. This time around, he found $140 million by raiding idle cash in other state accounts; Chicago would get $16 million of it. He’s also eyeing yet another cigarette tax hike to reinstate a popular school construction program.

“I agree that there’s an over-reliance on property taxes to fund schools. The state should pay a larger share,” Blagojevich said during his budget address in February. “I know that if we don’t raise income and sales taxes, we will have to make more difficult decisions, but that’s what we’re supposed to do.”

Is this any way to finance the future of our state? Clearly, the state must step up and close the budget gap. What the current crisis calls for is budget rationality, a reliable source of revenue to secure enough funds and to put a stop to the herky-jerky process of lobbying and begging that schools now face every year. Even Mayor Daley has softened his initial support for building a casino here that would help fill the state’s coffers, saying that solid school funding comes first.

But if history is any indication, when it comes to paying for schools, political will extends only as far as the next sin tax. After all, schools continue to receive some of the proceeds of the state lottery, and a new casino would generate plenty more cash.

Who knows? Another game of chance might well be next. Bingo anyone?