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Despite criticism, bill dealing with education reform passes Senate

SPRINGFIELD – A proposal to overhaul Illinois’ decades-old school funding system received Senate approval today, but it faces several more hoops in the House.

Senate Bill 16, sponsored by Sen. Andy Manar, D–Bunker Hill, would require the state to appropriate 92 percent of its public school funding based on the financial need of each school district.

“The Senate took an important step in the process of fundamentally changing how the state funds school districts to achieve greater equity,” Manar said. “There was a strong coalition of support from lawmakers in Chicago, the suburbs and downstate Democrats, but there is still more work to be done, and I expect more changes to be made to the proposal as it progresses. But I can’t stress enough how important it was to clear this first hurdle.”

Over the past year, Manar has been developing a new school funding formula that will change the way the state distributes $6.7 billion in aid to education. Unchanged since 1997, the current education funding system only distributes 44 cents for every $1 invested in education on the basis of district need.

Under the new funding system, 92 cents of every $1 invested by the state in the K-12 education system, with the exception of funds for early childhood education, construction projects and high-cost special education, would flow through a single funding formula.

“This new funding system will bridge the gap between the haves and the have-nots. It will better address student needs, such as socio-economic background, language ability or special learning needs, while also accounting for a school district’s ability to raise funds locally,” Manar said. “The Senate sent a message today that we want all Illinois students to succeed, not just a select few.”

Sen. Dale Righter, R-Mattoon, was among the bill’s biggest critics. He called it a complicated rewrite of the state’s school funding formula that reduces accountability and muddies the already confusing education funding process in Illinois.

“While this legislation began as an attempt to reform education funding and fix a number of problems that we identified in March of last year in a Senate Republican report on school funding, unfortunately the measure we voted on today not only fails to bring equitable reform to Illinois’ education system, it creates additional problems,” said Righter. “Ongoing changes to the bill have occurred with little-to-no conversation or debate, making it difficult to reach any sort of clarity on what this legislation will achieve.”

The 55th District senator noted he was particularly troubled by a provision in the bill that further de-prioritizes the state’s Foundation Level education grant within the General State Aid formula. Currently, the state has established that Illinois schools will receive $6,119 per student. Though Righter has criticized the “proration” of the Foundation Level that has occurred in recent years, he said he’s even more disturbed by a change in Senate Bill 16 that would allow the Foundation Level to be reduced even further at the discretion of a state agency.

“The Foundation Level was established by state statute so all students are guaranteed a minimal level of funding. Deviating from this eliminates the measuring stick that superintendents, administrators, educations and parents rely on,” Righter explained. “Straying from this method of accountability and reassurance to Illinois schools is not the direction in which to go if we are trying to increase equitability within the state’s education funding process.”

Recently Righter introduced legislation that would prioritize the Foundation Level; instead of diverting money into all other programs, Righter’s Senate Bill 3664 requires the Foundation Level grant be funded at 100 percent before directing education dollars to any other grant lines or programs.

Additionally, Righter noted that Senate Bill 16 offers a number of special benefits for the Chicago Public Schools that are not available to other school districts in the state. It earmarks 48.4 percent of the funding for special education private tuition to Chicago. It guarantees that Chicago receives 30.7 percent of Special Education Transportation funding. It specifies that Chicago receive 37 percent of the Early Childhood Education Block Grant, and it creates a special credit for teacher pension costs that is available only to Chicago.

“Last year we noted that through special channels and grant lines CPS receives a disproportionate amount of state aid compared to downstate school districts. It’s an inherently unfair system that rewards schools based solely on geographic location. Re-integrating parity into the state’s education funding system was one of my top priorities, yet we see that through Senate Bill 16 once again CPS would receive special deals that no other school districts would receive,” said Righter.

Righter’s bill remains in committee.

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