State board wants $730 million more for education

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The Illinois State Board of Education is considering moving away from the current model for how it doles out the recommended per-pupil funding.

Courtesy of Shutterstock

The Illinois State Board of Education is considering moving away from the current model for how it doles out the recommended per-pupil funding.

Illinois State Board of Education officials expressed annoyance on Wednesday with the Chicago Public Schools decision to administer the state’s controversial new standardized test at just a small group of schools — but didn’t offer any solutions for getting the district to comply.

During their first meeting of the year, board members also voted to send legislators their fiscal year 2016 budget recommendations that include a $730 million increase in general fund appropriations.

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State Board of Ed Chair James Meeks

The 20-minute discussion about last week’s news that CPS will administer the PARCC exam–the new test aligned to the Common Core State Standards and developed by a group of some 40 states — to just 10 percent of schools, ended with no definitive conclusions. Instead, newly appointed chairman James Meeks said he and other ISBE leaders planned to “work vigorously with Chicago people to absolutely figure out what’s going to happen and what’s not going to happen.”

If no agreement with CPS has been reached by Feb. 11, the date of the next ISBE meeting, “then we have to make a decision as it relates to how we will respond to their response,” Meeks said. “We’re not going to wait until we find out what’s going to happen. We’ll be the aggressors. We’ll go to meetings. We’ll sit with them and try to get it all worked out.”

ISBE wants to reach some definitive conclusion about the matter before March, when districts are supposed to begin administering the first round of the exam. Parents and activists had been lobbying against the PARCC and echoing a growing backlash against the exam in other states.

State schools Supt. Christopher Koch said Illinois faces potentially huge consequences for Chicago’s actions  – “ranging from something as light as a stern letter to something as egregious as losing all of our funds.”

“It would immediately put us out of compliance as a state, given that we’re required to have 95 percent participation,” he said. “It’s the state the federal government would sanction in the event  thresholds are not met.” Without full participation by Chicago, Illinois has no way to meet the federal mandate.

But Koch also warned that Chicago could be penalized for defying the state mandates – and even lose its recognized status as a school district, although ISBE has only taken this action once in its history.

In addition to the potential loss of federal dollars, ISBE officials said the state can’t recoup the money it’s already spent to administer the assessment at all schools. “If they’re not used we still have to pay for,” Koch said. “The district not using them is costing us more money.”

It’s unclear how much that will cost the state, although Koch mentioned a $1 per test fee.

$7.5 billion budget a “smart investment”

Wednesday’s meeting was the first presided over by Meeks, a former state senator and pastor from Chicago who was recently appointed to the job by Gov. Bruce Rauner. He replaces Gery Chico.

Meeks and other board members voted to approve Koch’s recommended 2016 budget, which asks the Legislature to appropriate $7.5 billion in general fund dollars toward education. That would be a nearly 11-percent increase when compared to the current fiscal year.

Education promises to be a key but contentious issue in the coming months as Rauner and the Legislature wrangle over how to solve the state’s predicted multibillion deficit.

Rauner has said he wants to spend more money on public education, although he has not yet laid out plans for how to do so. Meanwhile, state legislators are updating a proposal from last year to overhaul how the state calculates education funding. That plan, sponsored by State Sen. Andy Manaar, a Democrat, passed in the state Senate but not in the House.

Manaar told The Associated Press this week that one major change in the new proposed funding formula would be to account for regional cost differences, such as higher teacher salaries in districts where the cost of living is higher.

ISBE officials said they recognized the financial challenges ahead for Rauner and legislators but called education the smartest investment the state could make for its economic future.

“Most of these districts have already made significant staff and programming cuts as local revenue sources shrink,” said the board’s finance committee chairman Jim Baumann in a statement. “Providing the financial support obligated by state law is the very least we can do to help ease the burden and prevent further reductions from hindering the important work taking place in classrooms to prepare our students for college and careers.”

Under their proposal, ISBE officials want the bulk of the extra money to go toward fully funding the so-called “foundation level,” the per-pupil funding that the state should provide for a basic education. The foundation level is now $6,119 per student. In recent years, Illinois has only funded 89 percent of the foundation level.

Other proposed increases include $50 million for early childhood education, which state officials already promised the federal government in order to get a four-year, $80 million grant to expand preschool; about $49 million to restore transportation funding for regular and vocational programs to previous levels; and $5 million to give high schools the option of administering two different versions of the PARCC.

Photo: Education funding/Shutterstock