Panel aims to shield school funding

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Arthur Berman

Arthur Berman

When the Education Funding Advisory Board gave lawmakers its recommendation for a $1,441 increase in minimum per-pupil spending, the board made another little-noticed but far-reaching proposal that would, in effect, end the yearly battles over how much to spend on schools.

The advisory board called on the state to make education funding a “continuing appropriation,” thus making money for schools immune from budget cuts. Such a change would require the state to set aside money for schools first, before yearly budget negotiations begin.

It would also stop the practice of using money originally earmarked for high-poverty schools from going to general education, because the state would set aside enough money for both, explained former state senator Arthur L. Berman, an advisory board member who proposed the change.

The measure would ensure “we’re not taking from one very important fund, such as the poverty grant, and giving it to another very important fund or even jeopardizing the funding of the foundation level.

Both of these, under our intent, would be fully funded,” he told his colleagues on the board.

The board’s move took it a slight step beyond its appointed role, which, under state law, is simply to suggest a foundation level and changes to the poverty grant. But taking action to protect school funding isn’t as politically volatile as urging lawmakers to enact a tax swap to increase school funding, something the board declined to do.

The previous advisory board did just that two years ago, recommending that the Legislature raise the income tax and lower property taxes. But with Gov. Rod Blagojevich advocating expanded gambling to increase money for schools, while remaining adamantly opposed to higher taxes, the current board declined to take up the advocacy mantle again.

Too, advisory board chairman Steve DeMitro, a Chicago attorney, declined to say whether he favors a tax swap.

Three advisory board members favor the idea: Berman, who is a consultant to the Chicago Public Schools; Anne Davis, president of the Illinois Education Association and the lone remaining member of the previous board; and James F. Dougherty, president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, which has long supported the idea. (The board’s other member is Ramon Cepeda Jr., a Darien resident who is a first vice-president at LaSalle Bank.)

Reworking the poverty grant

Two years ago lawmakers made two changes in the way state Chapter 1 funds are allocated. First, at the board’s behest, they moved from using federal Census figures, which are updated only once a decade and typically undercount poor people, to more regularly updated estimates from the state.

Some school districts would have lost money under the change, so the Legislature retooled the law to prevent that. But doing so meant high-poverty schools would end up with less money than lawmakers originally intended.

Second, the Legislature stipulated that money allocated for the poverty grant would be a back-up source of funding for the foundation level: If money for that runs short, as it did last year, poverty grants take a hit.

The advisory board asked the legislature to fully fund both of those components in the future. The continuing appropriation, if enacted, would make sure they were paid for before lawmakers made any other budget decisions.

More money to meet No Child Left Behind

One of the biggest questions board members faced is the effect of federal mandates from the No Child Left Behind Act.

Eventually, the law will dictate that all students in a school district meet or exceed certain testing goals. But existing criteria for setting the foundation level are based on schools in which just two-thirds of students, on average, meet state standards on the ISAT tests. Helping schools ensure that all of their students make the grade would raise the amount they need to spend per pupil.

And the tougher the requirements used to find the high-performing “model schools” that will act as guideposts, the less data the board has to examine in determining the foundation level—which could raise questions about whether the foundation level is based on a representative share of districts.

In any event, the board used calculations based on existing criteria to set the foundation level at $6,405 per pupil, nearly 30 percent more than the $4,964 the state provided this year.

In 2002, the advisory board set a benchmark foundation level of $5,665, but lawmakers and the governor haven’t yet met that goal.

Still, one advocate from the Illinois PTA told advisory board members that the group can use its recommendation in its efforts to push for funding changes.

And Bindu Batchu, campaign manager for the A+ Coalition, which advocates a tax swap, says the board’s recommendation carries a lot of weight because it is based on research and not politics.

“That’s the most important benchmark in education,” Batchu says. “It shows how much it takes to pay for a decent education.”

Daniel C. Vock is the Statehouse bureau chief for the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin. To contact him, send an e-mail to editor@catalyst-chicago.org.