School Funding Reform

//School Funding Reform

It’s no secret that our state is struggling. Under the weight of the Governor’s refusal to compromise on a state budget, we’re losing jobs and cutting services every day – and the most vulnerable among us pay the heaviest price.

If only our problems ended with the budget mess.

Sadly, beneath the surface, less reported but with perhaps far greater significance are a number of structural deficiencies that have been harming our state for generations. Chief among these is our outdated and glaringly unfair school-funding formula—we own it and by most accounts it’s the most regressive in the Nation.

The funding formula as it is written today relies heavily on property taxes – a one-size-fits-all approach in a geographically massive state with diverse populations and economies.

Our friends on the other side of the aisle have a favorite talking point – they love to decry those policies that supposedly, “pick winners and losers.”

Yet, that is precisely what our current funding formula does, and not just among school children, but within communities and regions of the state.

Let me be crystal clear: the “losers” in today’s system are children living in poverty.

Vibrant, wealthy communities enjoy a stable and robust property tax base. As a result, they have some of the best schools in the state – if not the country. When companies look to relocate, these communities rise to the top of the list, and the investment grows the property tax base further, brings wealth into the community and strengthens the schools.

Contrast that with what happens in cities and communities with serious economic challenges: Decatur, Cairo, Kankakee and Danville, for example; the south and west sides of Chicago; plus many of the communities south of Interstate 70 that for decades depended on blue-collar industries like mining and manufacturing as their economic bases.

When longtime major employers close their doors, families put their homes on the market and move away. The seeds of poverty and crime are sewn. Once-thriving Main Street businesses shutter. Property tax collections decrease, meaning less money for local schools. More families move away, and businesses find less incentive to move in. The cycle of decline continues.

It’s a system structurally rigged to choose winners and losers, tragically and unfairly setting children –who have no say in any of this, and who can’t even vote for the leaders who make decisions that affect them for the rest of their lives—up for failure.

To be sure, the schools and communities cited in the former example, those with excellent programs and abundant resources, are a benefit to the state and provide excellent opportunities to those children. We shouldn’t want to change that.

But for those children and those communities described in the latter example, we can no longer maintain a system that forces them down the path of failure.

Recently the Governor proposed an education funding “reform” bill. Inexplicably, Rauner’s proposal takes the inequities of the current system and amplifies them – actually sending less money to poorer districts and more to wealthier ones. One of my colleagues called Rauner’s plan, “Robin Hood in reverse.”

The proposed funding reform legislation that I have crafted with several of my Democratic colleagues is focused on a statewide formula that accounts for each school district’s individual needs and sets up one set of rules for all schools to drive better results. We should prioritize limited state resources to bridge the gaps. No more inequity, no more special deals.

That includes ending Chicago block grants while alleviating financial pressure on CPS and the hundreds of other districts across Illinois in the same predicament.

It also includes a provision to maintain current levels of state funding for 4 years for well-off districts, giving the state time to address the pension crisis and repair the budget to maintain and even increase education funding to all districts – assuming Governor Rauner ever decides that it’s time to do his job and sign a budget.

We have a great opportunity. We can show the people of our state, who have become so weary of dysfunction in state government that we can come together to accomplish something that will help our state. We can jumpstart our economy. And most importantly, we can reverse decades of inequality that have unfairly burdened a generation of children of every race from every corner of the state.

Reforming our education funding system fairly is the right thing to do, for our children, and for our state.

State Senator Andy Manar, (D – Bunker Hill, 48th District)