Education Bills — And $350M More For Illinois Schools — Advance To Rauner’s Desk

School lockers
State lawmakers this week increased spending for both K-12 schools and higher education in Illinois. Susie An / WBEZ
School lockers
State lawmakers this week increased spending for both K-12 schools and higher education in Illinois. Susie An / WBEZ

Education Bills — And $350M More For Illinois Schools — Advance To Rauner’s Desk

WBEZ brings you fact-based news and information. Sign up for our newsletters to stay up to date on the stories that matter.

Schools across Illinois are in line for $350 million in additional state money, with state colleges and universities also seeing a slight increase, pending Gov. Bruce Rauner’s signature on the state budget lawmakers passed this week.

Lawmakers also approved a handful of education bills in the final days of the legislative session to address everything from teacher pay to charter schools. Here’s a roundup of what happened:

$350 million more for K-12 schools

When lawmakers passed a historic overhaul of the state’s school funding formula last year, it was clear that for the formula to work as intended — to grow state funding for needy districts — lawmakers had to appropriate extra funds annually.

That’s what happened this year, said Sen. Andy Manar (D-Bunker Hill), the lead sponsor of the school funding overhaul.

“It’s year number two of our trek toward equity.”

Before, Manar said budget-making for K-12 education had been marred by politics and division.

“Different factions or different geographies in the state were jockeying for their silo.”

He said this year was different. “The governor came to the table with year number two’s down payment toward equity. The legislature embraced that.”

Manar said the impacts are already being felt in his home district, which is 120 miles north of St. Louis, and has some of the most underfunded rural schools in the state.

“Schools are starting to do things that are going to make a great impact on children,” he said, including reducing class sizes in kindergarten and hiring reading coaches.

Bob Dolgan, spokesman with the policy group Advance Illinois, said it’s also significant that the budget is on time this year. “That means that school districts have much more certainty as they’re looking at next year and planning.”

A portion of the extra $350 million — $50 million — in the budget will be reserved to provide local property tax relief to districts with high tax rates and low property wealth. Many south suburban districts could benefit.

And while educators are celebrating the state’s uptick in education spending, they are still aware of this reality: the Illinois State Board of Education says the state actually needs to add an extra $7 billion to adequately fund schools.

Bump for beleaguered state universities

Lawmakers also boosted higher education funding by 2 percent, a move university officials are celebrating as a sign of reinvestment. For the University of Illinois system, an extra $11.6 million for day-to-day operations brings its total budget to $594.6 million.

Public universities are trying to recover from a two-year budget impasse that decimated higher education funding after years of declining state support. Many officials credit a new higher education working group for placing additional emphasis on higher ed during the legislative session. That group is focused stopping the exodus of students from the state to attend schools elsewhere. The bipartisan group worked to increase overall investment in the state’s public universities and also helped pass five higher education bills this session.

One of those bills creates a new $25 million “Aim High” grant to be split among the state’s nine public universities. For every extra dollar universities award students, the state will match that funding, up to $50 million. The grant targets students whose families make too much money to qualify for the state’s Monetary Award Program for low-income students, but still find Illinois’ public universities unaffordable.

Lawmakers also approved a bill giving priority to returning students who qualify for MAP grants, guaranteeing they would receive funding for four years if they apply each year and their financial situation doesn’t change.

New minimum teacher salaries

A bill backed by the state’s teachers unions establishes minimum statewide teacher salaries, updating a law from 1980 that says full-time teachers must make at least $9,000. The new minimums would start at $32,076 for a full-time teacher in fall 2019 and incrementally rise to $40,000 by 2022. After that, increases would be tied to the Consumer Price Index.

The bill comes with no funding so it would be up to local school districts to come up with the money. “This is great news for so many of our members,” said Kathi Griffin, president of the Illinois Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union. “The fact that legislators wanted to see educators earn a decent living is a huge step forward.”

Sen. Manar pushed for the law as a way to combat a teacher shortage. “Teachers in too many districts in Illinois are underpaid, that’s one big reason why we have a shortage.” Manar said. He said getting the governor to sign the bill “is going to be a challenge,” but he doesn’t believe it should be. “I think it’s going to be a huge step in the right direction so we can get the best and the brightest into the profession.”

Boost for early childhood

A block grant that has long sustained public preschool programs across Illinois will increase by $50 million, bringing total funding to $494 million. Chicago typically gets about 40 percent of that grant.

The boost will help Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel accomplish his campaign promise to offer free public preschool to all 4-year-olds in the city, regardless of income. Emanuel said free preschool would cost $175 million annually once it’s fully implemented in 2021. He said this week Chicago Public Schools also will use state education money for kindergarten through 12th grade to pay for universal preschool.

State Charter School Commission stripped of power again

For a second year in a row, lawmakers voted to gut the powers of the State Charter School Commission. Under the bill, the commission would no longer have the authority to approve a charter school proposal that has been denied by a local school board. The bill was backed this time by Chicago Public Schools. In recent years, Chicago charter schools that CPS attempted to close appealed to the commission, which voted to keep them open.

Andrew Broy, president of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, called the perennial attempts to gut the powers of the commission “plainly political.” He said this attempt was designed to “create an election issue this fall.”

The governor is unlikely to sign the bill, however. In February, he vetoed a similar attempt. “The commission has only approved 6 out of 48 appeals since its inception in 2011, and has a track record of careful consideration of what is best for students within local contexts,” Rauner wrote at the time. He said school districts can appeal commission decisions through the courts.

Follow WBEZ education reporters on Twitter at @WBEZeducation