‘This Week’ in the IL school funding mess

It is difficult to understand how the school funding woes in Illinois affect individual families, mainly because the picture complex: it’s different for one district than it is for another and possibly different for two districts serving the same child, given the state’s division in many districts of K-8 and high school-only districts. But since the first payments from the state are due tomorrow, let’s give it a try.

First and foremost, Illinois now has an approved state budget. It was a compromise spending and taxing plan, but it’s in place, unlike the last two fiscal years.

But then, although spending on education has been approved, the state hasn’t decided how exactly the pot should be divided among the state’s more than 850 public school districts. The General Assembly passed a bill, the infamous SB 1, but they knew that (a) Gov Bruce Rauner, a Republican, would veto the bill and (b) there weren’t enough votes to override the veto.

What Mr Rauner actually did was to exercise his right to provide an “amendatory veto,” which means he amended the bill. The most significant amendment the governor introduced was a requirement that districts, not the state, fund the pensions for new teachers. Those that have been there will still be covered with the state’s money, but districts have to find the funds in their own budgets for new hires.

The detail that is getting the most attention, though, is the governor’s move to eliminate the minimum funding level for school districts. This could result in districts losing money down the road, despite the governor’s call for maintaining funding levels.

“The very, very early preliminary comments I heard (Monday) night were consistent with what I’ve always believed: all districts do at least as well, low-income districts do dramatically better, and nobody gets worse, which is what the goal of mine was. That’s the very preliminary comment,” the Chicago Tribune quoted him as saying. “But it’s very complicated and there’s what, 800 and some districts that have to be all reviewed? So I’ve encouraged them to go as fast as possible.”

The unions were ready with their objections, and they are well-founded: Districts are less likely to hire new teachers, given the governor’s amendatory veto to SB 1.

And they weren’t the only ones. “Governor Rauner’s decision to pit one child against another is disappointing, especially as Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate continue to meet and negotiate,” House Speaker Michael Madigan said in a statement. “The governor has yet again chosen crisis over compromise, but Democrats will continue to work with legislative Republicans in order to enact education funding that is fair to every student, every school and every community.”

Indeed, the governor supports most of SB 1, and it will equalize funding for school districts across the state. The Illinois School Funding Reform Commission studied the way Illinois funds its public schools and charted a path to a fairer and more equitable system.

“These changes included in my amendatory veto reflect years of hard work by our education reform commission and our ability to overcome our political differences for the good of our young people’s futures,” Mr Rauner said in a statement. “I urge the General Assembly to act quickly to accept these changes and let our students start school on time.”

If they do accept the changes, the Chicago block grant would be eliminated from the funding formula, and both Chicago Public Schools pension considerations would also be removed. These are the normal cost pick-up and the unfunded liability deduction.

The veto language also seems to shift in the 2020-21 school year the hold-harmless districts now follow from using a per-district accounting to a per-pupil accounting, based on a three-year rolling average of enrollment.

Schools get about two-thirds of their revenue from local property taxes, and the state makes up the rest of what is needed. The veto also changed the way certain equalized assessed value subsidies are figured, because some wealthier districts use these subsidies to under-report their property wealth. Then, they get more than their fair share and districts in poorer communities, like some rural ones downstate, don’t get as much money per pupil as they’re entitled to.

This has created a vast inequity between districts across the state, and the governor’s amendatory veto would help.

But S.B. 1 also requires districts to show evidence that the funding they’re receiving from the state is being well spent. Exactly what that evidence is will be determined, but odds are, it will include test scores. That would be PARCC in math and English for students in third through eighth grade and possibly the SAT for high schools. It would also severely affect any decisions for Chicago Public Schools.

You can argue over whether these tests are good or bad, but that’s not even the question here. The question at hand under an “evidence-based model” for funding will be whether or not high-stakes tests, good or bad, are acceptable in this situation.

Right now, scores on the PARCC test don’t really count for third graders. Yes, their parents get an individual student report that shows how they did, and the school gets detailed information about what topics in math and English the schools or individual teachers may not be covering well. But the scores on the test don’t count for students’ grades; they don’t prevent promotion to fourth grade; there aren’t any real consequences for individual children.

But now, if evidence shows through test scores that a school or district isn’t making good use of the money, in the absence of any fraud that may creep in, the tests themselves will become high stakes for students: if funding is removed from the school, the number of programs students have access to in the educational or extracurricular realm will be reduced. Many students report that these programs are one of the biggest reasons they like going to school.

So, if the number of programs offered to students is rolled back because evidence resulted in a reduction in funding received, a greater percentage of students will lose interest in school, and then, when they take the test in fourth grade, they’ll get even lower scores. That will provide additional evidence for the state to cut funding.

This vicious downward spiral is the real danger behind high-stakes testing, without even considering whether the tests themselves are valid, reliable, and fair—and there’s a very good argument that they are none of those things.

But ultimately, SB 1 is the only game in town right now, and the amendatory veto didn’t touch any of the “essential elements” that have been a part of the “evidence-based model” for school funding for a while. In fact, the language leaves intact a “poverty concentration” as part of the classroom metric for evaluating school data, a consideration that wasn’t part of the original version of SB 1 (because some lawmakers thought the recognition of “low income” would suffice in this part of the calculation) but was added as lawmakers hashed out the EBM.

The EBM is a piece of work that will take years to analyze, but what it essentially does is to look at the demographics of a school district and calculate how much it would cost to provide funding for what the school does: full-day kindergarten, technology and equipment upgrades, maintenance and operations, certain employee benefits, instructional materials, assessments, and specialists, including those for gifted and talented students, English learners, special education, guidance counselors, subs, librarians, nurses, and intervention teachers.

Stay tuned. It’s going to be an interesting show.

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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