Five years after massive education funding overhaul in Illinois, funders are seeing signs the change is working

Five years ago, Illinois lawmakers passed a law that overhauled how public schools in the state are funded.

The evidence-based funding formula was designed to calculate the actual cost for each district to provide the type of education expected by the state, and then gradually increase the state’s share of that cost.

Over time, it was also supposed to narrow the gap between the best-funded and worst-funded districts in the state, in hopes of lowering property taxes and improving educational outcomes in the most well-funded districts. underfunded.

Five years later, huge disparities still exist between districts, both in terms of funding and academic performance. But lawmakers from both parties who were involved in negotiating the new law say it has brought huge benefits, especially to the most underfunded schools.

“I’m using the example of East St. Louis, which I think had the highest property tax rate at the time, but was far from having adequate spending,” said Andy Manar, former state senator from Bunker Hill and now deputy governor who was a chief architect of the project.

“And if you did the math at the time, the math would show that East St. Louis literally couldn’t impose itself enough to generate the necessary funds to say that the school district has an adequate level of spending to achieve the results that us as a state expects this school district,” he said. “They literally couldn’t win in fairness. It was mathematically impossible.

In the first year of the formula, the District of East St. Louis was funded at 66% adequacy. This year it is funded at 96% adequacy.

Republican Sen. Chapin Rose, who represents a largely rural area of ​​east-central Illinois, said many districts in his area face the same challenge.

“I think for many regions that I represent it was a lifeline, he said. “It kept the doors open and in some cases provided a much needed infusion as they just couldn’t keep going back to property tax. It dried up.

history of iniquity

Illinois has traditionally relied on local property taxes to fund most education expenditures. This automatically led to inherent inequalities, as districts with relatively low levels of real estate wealth per student must levy higher tax rates to collect the same amount of money as wealthier districts.

To compensate for these differences, before the adoption of the Evidence-Based Funding formula, the state used a complex formula to distribute state aid intended to guarantee districts with modest tax bases a certain minimum level of “base ”, although even the wealthiest districts received aid under this formula, even if they were more than able to raise sufficient funds on their own.

Many districts complained that the formula never delivered on its promise of ensuring adequate funding for all districts, in part because the General Assembly did not fully fund the formula. Instead, it distributed “pro rata” amounts, based on the amount of money available in the state budget at the time.

Manar cited the example of Harrisburg High School in southern Illinois, where the ceiling in the library was removed because the district did not have enough money for basic repairs and maintenance.

“And, you know, we held a town hall on school funding at this library — the location highlighted the need for the bill,” he said. “And Harrisburg High School was no different than so many other places in Illinois, not just rural parts of the state. It was the result of years of pro-rating general state aid and years of failure to tackle the very complicated nature of school funding.

For decades, school districts in Illinois have attempted to turn to state courts to redress inequities, arguing among other things that the 1970 Illinois Constitution states that “the state has the primary responsibility for the financing of the public education system”.

But state courts have consistently refused to enter the school finance fray. As early as 1973, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that this provision was only a “pressing expression of a goal to be achieved” and not a mandate for the state to fund the schools.

In 1990, 50 school districts calling themselves the Committee for Educational Rights sued the state claiming that the system produced wide disparities in educational resources between rich and poor districts in violation of several provisions of the Constitution. of Illinois, including its Equal Protection Clause and a clause requiring the state to provide “an efficient system of high quality public educational facilities and services”.

But when that case reached the Illinois Supreme Court six years later, the justices ruled that there were no judicial standards for determining whether the state provided a “high quality” education and that the Deciding how to fund schools – and how to balance competing interests of equity and local control – was a legislative, not a judicial matter.

The formula

After more than a year of negotiations, Illinois lawmakers have reached a deal that, over a period of years, would inject more state money into public schools to bring underfunded districts to a level of adequacy – assuming, of course, that the General Assembly lives up to its obligations.

The final vote took place during a special summer session in August 2017, during which lawmakers also ended the two-year budget standoff with Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner.

The goal of the new formula is to gradually bring all districts to an “adequate” level of funding, or having sufficient resources to cover the cost of providing the education services expected by the state. This takes into account the total number of enrollments in a district, the poverty rate, the number of English learners, and a host of other factors.

Each year, by law, the state must add at least $350 million in new funds for schools, with most of that money going to those furthest from adequacy. But the law provided that no district would see a reduction in funding from the last year before it was passed, a so-called “exemption” provision that meant even the wealthiest districts would continue to receive aid from the law. ‘State.

People on both sides of the aisle said it was necessary because without a disclaimer the bill would never have passed.

“It’s a living breathing formula, and it changes from year to year, and so the mechanics of the formula eventually wear off,” Manar said. “But I think it brought a level of certainty. It brought a level of assurance and, frankly, a level of comfort to a very complicated question of how to reform a very complicated and important system. … So a lot of people didn’t like it. Personally, I didn’t. But it had to be done. »

So far in the first five years, the state has met or exceeded that funding goal in all but one year, increasing the state’s share of school funding by $6.9 billion l last year under the old formula to $9.8 billion allocated this year.

It has also led to a rise in the percentage of K-12 education in the state, according to data from the state school board. In 2017, the state provided 24.4% of K-12 funding. In the last year for which verified figures are available, this figure has risen to 27%.

Signs of progress

According to data from the Illinois State Board of Education, it would take another $3.6 billion in additional public funding this year alone to bring all districts to 90% “adequate” funding, a goal set by law. But the state has made progress in meeting the needs of the least funded districts.

In the first year of evidence-based funding, 168 districts were funded at less than 60% adequacy. They were the first to benefit from new funding when the evidence-based funding formula came into effect.

For the coming year, there are only two districts below that level – Washington Community High School in Tazewell County and Chaney-Monge School District, an elementary district in Will County. Both are funded this year at 59% match.

The gap between the least-funded and the best-funded districts has also narrowed, if only slightly. In the first year, funding levels varied from a low of 47% to a high of 288% adequacy. This year, the gap fluctuates between 59% and 270%.

Gov. JB Pritzker said he believes the state must continue to increase investment in education to improve outcomes and reduce reliance on property taxes.

“A lot of good has been done, there’s no doubt about that,” he said. “And as you know, evidence-based funding was both necessary to get money to the schools that needed it most and to make sure that we improve funding for education as a whole, throughout the state of Illinois. I personally think that we need to fund our education system even more.

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