Why I’m celebrating Illinois’ school funding fix–and ignoring the voucher kerfuffle

I’m going to take a moment to celebrate my state’s historic school funding plan–and ignore the brewing debate over a private school tax credit that opponents want to call a backdoor voucher program but isn’t a voucher program at all.

Today, Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner is expected to sign legislation that will close spending inequities, reduce the reliance on property taxes, and provide desperately needed pension relief to Chicago. I’m happy about it–not because it’s a perfect plan, it’s not, not even close–but because it represents an end to the brinksmanship we’ve endured around educational finances for at least two  decades.

I’ve lived in Illinois for more than 20 years, I’ve reported on the sorry condition of our education funding for more than a decade as a journalist, and most importantly, I’ve raised two daughters who were educated in a state system with the most egregious and inequitable spending gaps in the nation.

Every year, it was the same dispiriting mess. The same old story about “unprecedented financial crises,” the same political stalemates in the state Legislature that typically forced a short-term fix but never landed on a long-term solution.

I live in a state where one suburban school district spends $32,278 per pupil–nearly four times as much as the $8,542 spent by the school district 22 miles down the road. This eye-popping gap surfaced in an analysis that examined operating costs at 93 Chicago suburban school districts across six counties. The spending disparities would be even worse if our rural downstate districts were examined as well, even if it can be fairly argued that the downstate-to-suburban-Chicago comparison is apples to oranges.

Some of these disparities are baked into the crazy patchwork quilt of school districts statewide–852 of them, one an elementary district with as few as 75 students enrolled, the largest is of course Chicago with 392,000 students. Our state has not tackled consolidation, and this legislation does not address the wild inefficiencies inherent in running school districts with a few hundred, or even a few thousand students. That nut feels just too big to crack, at least in my lifetime, so there are limits to what this legislation will solve.

Here’s what it will change: The absolute over-reliance on local property taxes, which all but guarantees that the students who live in the wealthiest neighborhoods have the smallest classes, the highest-paid teachers, the best enrichment programs, and state-of-the-art innovations–and that property-poor areas will get the exact opposite.

Under the new plan, the state will determine how much money each district needs to educate its students through a formula that gauges how much the district can raise in property taxes. The state will sends state aid first to districts that need the most money to reach a per-student spending target. Chicago Public Schools’ pension costs will be funded separately through the state’s pension system.

As one education advocate wrote after years of lobbying for changes to the school funding formula:

“(The) passage of education funding reform represents a generational change for Illinois children.” wrote Mimi Rodman, executive director of Stand for Children Illinois. “The passage of this landmark bill was only made possible because lawmakers of both parties chose compromise over politics and worked together to ensure children throughout the state receive the education they deserve….The compromise solution showed that there is widespread agreement on one thing: the quality of a child’s education should not depend on their zip code.”

There are two other promising aspects of this legislation that make this a win for suburbs–even in zip codes long advantaged by the school funding formulas.

Taxpayers in well-funded districts could petition to lower their property taxes, because of course there is nothing in this reform that forces school districts to reign in their freewheeling spending.  And the state allows for a review of rules governing tax increment financing districts that siphon money away from schools and other local taxing bodies to stimulate economic growth. (I can’t even begin to explain the nuances and need for TIF reform here, but it’s an important inclusion in this new law).

I’m no fan of the governor who will be signing this legislation today, as he did so much to exacerbate this stalemate and draw our state ever closer to the brink of disaster. But maybe disaster is what it finally took to reach this messy and controversial compromise. So I’ll be cheering on the governor and his pen today – and crossing my fingers that the rollout matches the rhetoric.

What do you think?
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Tracy Dell'Angela

Tracy Dell'Angela

Tracy loves to ask questions and write stories. She roots for the underdog, wants our nation to reimagine schools and the teaching profession, and seethes about how much school inequity she sees. She spent most of her career as a journalist covering schools and crime. She and her husband raised two daughters in a diverse suburb of Chicago. She currently runs an education foundation in her community and formerly served as managing editor of Education Post. After leaving journalism she explored her wonkier side communicating school research at the University of Chicago and the Institute of Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education. She is Californian by birth and a Chicagoan in spirit. She loves the outdoors and all animals, especially her spoiled "dingo" dog.

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