Unfunded mandates bill part of larger school funding push

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A downstate legislator is pushing a proposal to free schools from some
of the state’s unfunded mandates as a way to ease the burdens of
districts as they grapple with the current fiscal crisis. A downstate legislator is pushing a proposal to free schools from some of the state’s unfunded mandates as a way to ease the burdens of districts as they grapple with the current fiscal crisis.

HB 4711 would allow districts to ignore regulatory mandates that lack clear funding sources — with several notable exceptions, such as special education and the school lunch programs. One example: Requiring that two-way radios be installed on each school bus.

HB 4711 passed out of the House Education Committee on a bipartisan 13-5 vote Thursday, but it has a long way to go before it becomes law. Desperate district leaders support the idea, but teachers’ unions are wary of it, saying that it is too broad and unclear.

“Different schools could pick different programs to slash,” says Illinois Federation of Teachers spokeswoman Gail Purkey, noting that no one knows how this measure will impact teacher jobs.

Also, the Illinois State Board of Education is sounding alarms about the difficulty of figuring out which mandates are unfunded and which ones should be supported through general operating funds.

But bill sponsor, State Rep. Roger Eddy (R-Hutsonville) who is also a school administrator, says spending flexibility will help districts that have staggering deficits and looming staff cuts. At the moment, the state owes school districts more than $723 million, and the Illinois State Board of Education faces a substantial hole next year.

Among other groups, the Illinois Association of School Administrators supports the bill.

Eddy says state officials need to resist their impulse to micromanage and “trust locally elected officials” to make wise spending choices. In another attempt to generate support, he says he wants to add a three-year sunset to the provision so that lawmakers would be forced to reevaluate the law’s impact on schools. But those changes could force his bill back into various committees where, he admits, it might get stuck.

 

It’s unclear how much money the changes could actually save schools. Eddy suggests that it would signal a willingness to curtail spending and set the stage for getting voters to support a tax hike.

“The public is not willing to throw money into a bottomless pit,” Eddy says. “Until [HB 4711 or similar measures are] passed, until there is some responsibility for paying for existing programs, I don’t think anyone is going to support new taxes.”

 

Along those lines, activists were in Springfield this week trying to drum up support for HB 174, which would make several changes to Illinois’ tax structure and generate an estimate $5 to $6 billion in new revenue, much of which would be directed at schools.  The bill passed the Senate but is blocked in the House.

House Speaker Michael Madigan has refused to call HB 174 for a vote unless he has support from a substantial group of Republicans—perhaps as many as a dozen, says Ralph Martire, executive director for the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability and a school finance expert.

 

The upcoming elections complicate the matter, Martire adds.

 

Eddy, a key Republican ally to school funding reformers in the past, has “supported, at least in concept” similar plans to generate extra revenue for schools.