Illinois lawmakers passed a state budget for the new year that starts July 1 — and it doesn’t decimate school funding as some feared it might.
The maintenance budget approved over the weekend holds spending steady for both K-12 and higher education. Gov. JB Pritzker is expected to sign it. However, the budget is contingent on borrowing and as-yet unrealized federal aid. There are also fears level spending won’t last long if the COVID-19 pandemic continues and tax revenue doesn’t recover.
Here are four things to know about the new budget.
1. K-12 schools get level funding. But school administrators worry about next year.
K-12 schools were spared major cuts when Illinois lawmakers passed the $40 billion maintenance budget over the weekend. But schools won’t be receiving what many administrators anticipated before the coronavirus pandemic hit.
According to the state’s evidence-based funding formula for education, schools are supposed to receive an increase of $350 million each year over the next several years to be properly funded. The goal is to get all districts to 90% of what’s considered adequate funding by 2027.
Instead, schools will receive the same level of funding they got in the previous year. That’s $7.2 billion allocated for the state’s evidence-based funding model.
While funding is level for fiscal year 2021, some school administrators are wondering what’s in store for 2022.
At last week’s Illinois Board of Education meeting, ISBE Finance Officer Robert Wolfe said the agency has weathered downturns, but these are unprecedented times.
“We’ve had a shutdown since March, and that’s going to be very difficult going forward for anyone to estimate and try to predict what’s going to be the impact of the economy,” he said.
One concern the agency is keeping an eye on is property taxes. School districts rely on those funds, and Wolfe said it’s hard to guess what property values will look like across the state. He also added that some counties have allowed residents more time to pay property taxes, which may result in delayed payments. Some residents may not be able to pay.
2. Federal stimulus money is both a boost and a challenge.
The state is expected to receive $569.5 million in emergency school funds from the federal government in response to the pandemic. That will be divided across the state’s school districts, with more going to the most under-resourced districts.
Within that amount, about $54 million is set aside for districts that have additional technological needs. Remote learning has been uneven during the stay-at-home order, highlighting a wide digital divide. The aim is to close that gap by helping districts purchase more computers and provide teachers with training on remote teaching. Districts must apply for those additional funds.
Administrators are considering how to budget the federal stimulus money given the uncertainty for next school year. They have to plan in case buildings remain closed in the fall, which means additional costs to improve remote learning. But they’re also planning out safety measures if buildings do reopen.
“Do we need to do plexiglass around our desks?” asked ISBE Vice Chair Donna Leak at last week’s board meeting. “Do we need to budget for partitions to turn multi-purpose spaces into classroom spaces, so we can actually socially distance in an in-person learning environment?”
Leak is also the superintendent of Community Consolidated Schools District 168 in south suburban Sauk Village. She said she and other administrators are thinking of purchases that were never part of the school budget before, like gloves, masks and classroom structures.
3. The budget avoids higher education cuts — and that’s a win.
Illinois still isn’t funding its public universities at the same level as before the state budget impasse that ended nearly three years ago. But given the drastic drop in revenue due to the COVID-19 pandemic, higher education experts are enthusiastic that state lawmakers kept current funding levels for public universities and community colleges.
“It shows some investment in Illinois and investment in higher education, which will help fuel recovery,” said Jennifer Delaney, a professor at the University of Illinois and member of the Illinois Board of Higher Education
Total state funding for public universities for next year will be $1.16 billion. The University of Illinois system, for example, will get $622 million for operations. Community colleges will receive $303 million in general funding. Schools use this money to supplement tuition and cover day-to -day operations, which is crucial for universities with declining enrollment.
Delaney said it’s vital that the state adequately fund universities so they‘re prepared to handle an influx of students looking for new opportunities. It’s common during a recession for people out of work to return to school to build skills.
“People are using the time where they are unemployed or lost jobs to retrain and reenter the workforce in a stronger position than when they were laid off,” she said.
4. Support for low-income college students is more critical than ever.
State lawmakers also voted to fund Illinois’ tuition grant program for low-income college students, known as the Monetary Award Program, at $451 million. That’s the same level as last year. Advocates for the program were hoping for an additional $50 million for those need-based grants.
Experts said while the state’s financial situation made that difficult to accomplish, these grants are key, as students who benefit from MAP grants are likely among those most impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic downturn.
“Without additional resources there, we won’t be able to serve more of those vulnerable populations,” said Delaney. “That’s our workforce. Those are folks where educational opportunity makes a difference between being employed and not being on food stamps. And that really matters.”
Delaney expects there to be a surge in students applying for need-based aid for college. Students will also probably qualify for larger awards due to rising unemployment during the pandemic. The Illinois Student Assistance Commission, which runs the MAP program, said as of May 26 there is still funding available for qualifying students for the next academic year. That means students still planning to enroll in a two or four-year college next fall can still receive state support to help cover tuition and fees.