Education funding reform bill advances in legislature

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SPRINGFIELD – The pending amendment to SB 16, the 419-page school funding reform amendment, was pored over and examined and scrutinized, argued over and debated by witnesses and legislators on the Special Issues Subcommittee of the Senate Executive Committee for nearly three hours yesterday before it was approved for full committee consideration.

Meanwhile, members of the Illinois State Board of Education endorsed the proposal during today’s regular meeting.

The amendment authored by state Sen. Andy Manar (D-Bunker Hill) returns most of the revenue distributed to Illinois school districts to that money’s original path – the General State Aid formula that was designed to minimize the disparities in funding from one district to another.

“We own the most inequitable [school funding] system in the nation,” Manar told a gathering in Springfield last week. Currently, only 44% of all school funding is directed through the GSA formula. Manar’s proposal would raise that percentage to 92% and would “weight” the distribution to districts on the basis of poverty and other factors.

Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon led off Tuesday’s testimony by congratulating Manar for having crafted a fair proposal, and she especially praised one of factor that will be part of the weighting formula:  development of “Advanced Standing Students,” those who take and succeed in Advanced Placement courses and high school coursework that leads to college credits. (College-credit coursework in CPS is on the upswing.) https://www.catalyst-chicago.orgearly-college-expansion-paying

The panel also heard from Miguel del Valle, former Chicago mayoral candidate who is a founding board member for the advocacy group Advance Illinois and previous Chicago City Clerk, state senator and long-time chair of the Senate Education Committee. He was strongly in favor the Manar proposal because it shelters the poorest districts from fiscal harm.

State school funding fell by more than $1 billion since 2009 and cuts on the horizon (due to a scheduled decrease in the state income tax from 5% to 3.75% on January 1, 2015) will “hurt those most who can afford it least,” del Valle said. By funneling most state funding through the general state aid formula, schools with high concentration of poor children will be spared much fiscal pain, he said.

Most of the interaction during the protracted hearing consisted of Sen. Matt Murphy (R-Palatine), the only Republican on the subcommittee, challenging Manar and other proponents, as well as witnesses in favor of the amendment.

Murphy pushed del Valle into a corner and an admission that “the wealthy school districts would not do as well” under the Manar bill. Currently, more state funding reaches wealthier districts in the form of block grants based on average daily attendance.

The proposal would shring the “flat grant” given to wealthier schools that are not eligible for money under general state aid.

Support that might have been unexpected came from Jeff Mays, president of the Illinois Business Roundtable. Mays is a former state representative from Quincy, where he now serves on the elected local school board.

“When I showed this to my [Business Roundtable] board, I said ‘There are principles here that we have long stood behind,’ ” Mays said.

“This is a good first step,” he added. “It may not make it all the way [to being enacted into law], but I don’t think it should stop here.” The Business Roundtable is an elite club of corporate CEOs who usually oppose higher government spending.

Easily the most eloquent testimony of the hearing came from David Lett, superintendent of Pana CUSD 8, which has lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in state support in recent years. He described the impact of having to cut teachers and school support staff, scale back music and art programs, and limit student access to libraries.

Since state support for education began to shrivel in 2009, Lett pointed out, the percentage of students from poor families has risen from about 40% to 60% in his district, with one elementary school posting an 80% poverty rate. These are the students who are hit the hardest when state money is cut under the current system, he explained.

He called for “boldness” and described Manar’s proposal as “the boldest plan” because it has positive effects even without adding more revenue.

Another witness was Larry Joseph, director of research for Voices for Illinois Children. “We believe very strongly in the objectives” of the Manar proposal, Joseph said, praising the bill’s “effective targeting toward schools with the greatest need.”

The panel voted 2-1 to send the bill to the full Executive Committee. State Sen. Kimberly Lightford and state Sen. Heather Steans voted “yes”; Murphy voted “no.”

Jim Broadway is publisher of Illinois School News Service.