SPRINGFIELD — Chicago-area public schools are collecting a disproportionate amount of state educational aid at the expense of students studying in downstate schools.
That conclusion was reached this month in two separate and independent investigations conducted by the Illinois State Board of Education and the Illinois Policy Institute.
“People should be concerned because it is an issue of fairness and equity,” said state Sen. Pam Altoff, R-McHenry. ”What this is telling me is that children with developmental disabilities and special needs in Chicago are receiving more money than my students in suburban Chicagoland or downstate Illinois.”
Back in 1995, Illinois lawmakers passed legislation that guaranteed Chicago Public Schools, or CPS, a certain percentage of state funds from block grants funding programs such as special education.
In 1995, the percentage was based on the proportion of Illinois students attending CPS. However, CPS enrollment has dropped during the last 18 years, while the proportion of funding it receives has remained at the 1995 level, according to Mary Fergus, a spokeswoman for the Illinois State Board of Education.
Consequently, Chicago students are getting more state funding per pupil than their counterparts elsewhere in the state.
According to the Illinois Policy Institute’s report, Chicago received $811 per pupil in property tax subsidies while downstate districts received an average of $25 per student.
In the area of poverty grant funds, Chicago received $2,513 per impoverished student — downstate only $1,343.
For some, this is nonsensical.
“What are they trying to say — kids from Chicago with disabilities from Chicago need more than those from the suburbs or downstate? This is not about poverty or socioeconomic conditions. This is about an individual disability,” Altoff said.
The funding gap can be seen in overall school district spending per student. According to the Illinois State Board of Education’s report, school districts outside of Chicago spent an average of $7,541 per pupil in 2012 while Chicago spent $10,410.
Altoff said most lawmakers are unaware of the disparity in funding between Chicago schools and the rest of the state.
“Most legislators are focused on general state aid to schools and local property taxes,” she said. “Few people are getting down into the weeds and looking at the whole picture — including block grants.”
One of the few people who has studied the issue is state Sen. David Luechtefeld, R-Okawville.
“Right now, it looks like schools are going to face some cuts, so it’s important that we take a close look at this issue and see who may be getting more than their fair share ,” he said. ”After we have looked at these numbers we may come up some recommendations. It important that students all across the state receive adequate funding.”
State Rep. Ken Dunkin, D-Chicago, said he is not particularly bothered that more money is spent per student in Chicago than elsewhere in the state because Chicagoans pay much of the state’s taxes.
“We want to shift the way we fund education, and that should be based solely off the income tax distribution in the state,” he said. “Right now it’s inherently unfair.”
Dunkin said school districts outside of Chicago are getting too much money.
Others see an underlying problem in the way public schools are funded.
“School funding should be changed totally,” said Dave McDermott, CFO of Moline School District. “In Illinois it matters where you live for the quality of your education. The General Assembly has known this for 50 years and doesn’t do anything about it.”
State Rep. Joe Sosnowski, R-Rockford, said a solution to this problem is to have the money follow the student rather than be al-located directly to school districts.
He said there is no need for special “block grants” that pit various parts of the state against one another for limited funds. In-stead of having government allocate funds to school districts, it should be given in the form of vouchers to parents for them to decide on what school can best serve their children’s needs, he said.
“Parents should be able to choose where their students attend. And this could create some healthy competition between public school and perhaps private schools for students,” Sosnowski said.