A bipartisan commission created by Gov. Bruce Rauner says Illinois needs to spend at least $3.5 billion more on schools over the next decade, focusing first on the poorest districts.
If the state assumed “primary responsibility” for funding schools, as is called for in the state constitution, Illinois would need to add a total of $6 billion, the commission members wrote in a report released Wednesday. The state currently spends $11 billion annually on schools.
The report -- which participating lawmakers from both the Illinois Senate and House hope to turn into legislation -- outlines how Illinois can distribute school money more fairly. The state has some of the widest gaps between wealthy and poor districts in the country.
A main recommendation is to create a unique funding target for each district based on its needs. For example, a district that has more students learning English or more concentrated poverty would have a higher cost per child.
“Today's system says that the challenges that the kids face in East St. Louis are the same as the challenges that kids face in Winnetka,” said state Sen. Andy Manar (D-Bunker Hill). “We have to account for the fact, the absolute fact, that it takes more to educate a child that lives in poverty to get the same outcome as a child that doesn't.”
Manar, who has introduced school funding reform bills the last three years, said he’s proud of the work the commission did, though he had hoped there would be a bill ready to file on Wednesday.
Beth Purvis, Rauner’s secretary of education, led the commission and said creating and passing legislation is now up to lawmakers.
“We are there to be a resource for the members of the General Assembly in crafting a bill that really will define adequacy and make sure that our funding is more equitably distributed,” Purvis said.
The commission’s report said the poorest districts should benefit most from a new system, but current funding levels for all districts should not “change in such a way that the current quality of education … be diminished.” Previous school funding bills were unsuccessful, in part, because some districts would face steep cuts.
However, adding new revenue could prove challenging for a state legislature that hasn’t had a comprehensive budget for two years.
Ralph Martire, executive director of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, said the price tag shouldn’t scare off legislators.
“We have to start putting these dollar amounts in context of the state and the state’s economy,” Martire said. “Illinois has a $750 billion state GDP. The tax increase would be less than one half of one percent.”
School funding reform may end up as part of a “grand bargain” to resolve the bigger budget stalemate in Springfield. A package of bills introduced by Senate leaders last month included a placeholder for school funding changes. Parts of that package have been lobbied against by business groups and labor unions.
State Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie (D-Chicago) said there’s a lot of work to do still to end the budget impasse and overhaul how Illinois pays for public schools.
“This is not the end of the story, this is the beginning,” Currie, the House majority leader, said. “This is chapter one ... and now we have to flush it out with chapters two through eight.”
There were several issues around how schools are funded that the commission did not come to a consensus on, but noted in the report.
Among them was whether the state should allow tax credits to individuals or corporations who donate money to a scholarship fund for school choice. In addition, left unresolved was the question of whether the district should get relief from some of the more than 100 state mandates, such as scheduling physical education classes and contracting with third-party vendors for non-instructional services.
Becky Vevea covers education for WBEZ. You can follow her @WBEZeducation.