Among the tales you’ll find there are those of Illinois teachers who work in school districts that can barely afford to provide the basics for their classrooms, let alone such frivolities as tablet computers, money for music or science education, flexible seating for young students or field trips.
Because of Illinois’ unfair, worst-in-the-nation formula for funding schools, dedicated teachers who work in struggling districts all over the state turn to online crowd-funding sites in the hope that caring friends and strangers will help them to purchase library books for their fourth-graders, iPads for their special-education students, new social studies materials to supplement outdated textbooks, or bean bag chairs for students who struggle to sit still and learn at a desk all day.
Because of that same unfair formula, schools in wealthier Illinois communities – those with healthy economies and robust property tax collections – are able to add college and workforce-readiness programs, build swimming pools and offer students nearly every imaginable educational advantage.
Meanwhile, schools in less prosperous parts of the state delay textbook purchases, make do with outdated computer technology, consider cutting bus routes, agriculture education and arts programs; and watch helplessly as the achievement gap widens between students who can compensate for such shortfalls and those who can’t.
The differences among Illinois school districts can be stark. And while those of us who press for school funding reform
do not begrudge students in prosperous communities a great education, we do believe all school districts should be able to offer excellent opportunities and resources to their students.
Updating Illinois’ school funding formula isn’t as simple as it might sound. State leaders have long been reluctant to tackle the problem because it is politically and regionally sensitive. Nobody wants their school districts to lose money, and nobody wants to vote to support a tax hike that could offer more money for public education.
That inaction has ensnared thousands of Illinois students in a troubling race to the bottom. It plays out every day in classrooms and communities all over the state where declining or stagnant property tax collections – the basis for school funding in Illinois – and high poverty rates intersect.
A recent report by the nationally recognized, nonpartisan organization Education Trust showed that Illinois spends 81 cents educating students from low-income families for every dollar it spends educating students from wealthier ones.
That’s not fair, it’s not right and it’s no way to ensure long-term economic success for this state.
Fortunately, there are signs that Gov. Bruce Rauner and once-wary lawmakers have come to accept that Illinois must update its nearly 20-year-old school funding formula. They recognize the unfairness of rewarding some districts while penalizing hundreds of others.
Last summer Gov. Rauner empaneled a 25-member school funding reform commission – a group of lawmakers of both political parties from both houses of the legislature to study the issue and recommend a path forward by Feb. 1, 2017, to theoretically give the General Assembly enough time to consider school funding reform legislation this spring. I was pleased to be part of the panel, and I remain optimistic about its work.
Whatever recommendation the commission makes, it is incumbent upon state leaders to act today to do a better job of prioritizing education dollars for students who live in poverty and have special needs. It costs more to educate them – we know that’s a fact.
We can achieve better outcomes from public education in Illinois, but we won’t achieve better outcomes by preserving the current inequitable system.
There is no excuse for the fifth-largest state in the nation to have some of the largest income-based educational achievement gaps in the nation. Illinois can and should be a leader on investing in public education, and the time has come for Republicans and Democrats to get the job done.