Illinois legislators responded last year to longtime calls for a more equitable school funding formula by passing a landmark bill. Gov. Bruce Rauner signed it into law in 2017. The legislation provides $3.5 billion spread over 10 years that is targeted to needy districts.
“We have to find a stable funding mechanism. This has helped,” said David Ardrey, executive director of the Association of Illinois Rural and Small Schools. “There’s no doubt it has helped tremendously. Our rural school districts have seen an uptick in resources.”
The first two fiscal years following the bill’s passage have each seen an additional $350 million infused into the annual funding mix.
“At minimum, Illinois has instituted funding reform from the state side,” said state Rep. William Davis, D-Harvey. Davis is chairman of the Illinois House of Representatives Appropriations Committee for Elementary and Secondary Education.
The bill is an important first step in education funding reform in the state, he said.
“Prior to that (bill’s passage) a lot of districts in Illinois were overly reliant on property taxes,” he said. “For some districts that was fine because they had the local wealth and business development in those communities to sustain education at a high level.
“But many communities didn’t have that resource available to them at a very high level. So many of them struggled in regard to providing adequate resources for their young people, sometimes causing them to increase property taxes.”
He added that the state has been funding schools at a rate of only about 36 percent. The constitution, however, requires that the state provide at least half of the resources.
“We were failing miserably in that obligation,” Davis said.
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Ardrey calls the landmark legislation “absolutely critical.”
“If we’re going to continue to base school funding on property taxes, there will always be a disparity among rural districts because property values obviously are different,” he said. “You look at property value in western suburbs of Chicago versus a downstate small rural community, and there’s no comparison.”
Davis is on board with that view.
“We came to the conclusion that under the old way of doing things, everybody was treated the same. But clearly we know that districts aren’t equal; some are better off than others,” he said. “We need to determine how much money each school needs. Based on a variety of factors and an evidence-based model, we are able to determine an adequacy target in each school district. It suggests that some students need more money than others.”
One example often cited by educators and lawmakers is New Trier High School, in the Chicago suburb of Winnetka. It is considered one of the wealthiest in the state, with an annual budget of nearly $30,000 per student. In contrast, some school districts average only about $5,000 per child.
While pleased with the 2017 bill, Ardrey said he would like to see a wholesale change in how school districts are funded.
“We need stable funding in that property tax situation or we need to change how we fund our schools away from property taxes,” he said. “No one will want to take that fight. That would be a monumental sea change to get a state to change the way it funds schools away from property tax.
“It’s worth a serious look to see how schools are funded in other states that don’t use property taxes. But that would take really strong political will to try to change a system that has been in place 100 years or longer.”