The writers of this piece represent a lot of folks who work hard every day in all corners of the state to make sure our kids get the education they deserve. We come together when something critical for our children is at stake. This is one of those times.
The Illinois Senate and House passed a school funding reform law called Senate Bill 1. This bill does much to remedy one of the worst failings of our state — the unfair and inequitable method used to fund Illinois’s public schools.
The problem is twofold. First, Illinois ranks nearly dead last in America in terms of how much money the state invests in our schools. Secondly, when the state has cut back on school funding, the current model forces less wealthy districts to get hit first and hardest. So, we’re not putting enough money in, and we’re not using common sense to allocate those limited funds.
In Illinois, gaps between what different districts have to educate their students are the starkest in the nation. Understandably, this has led communities to raise property taxes, creating even greater disparities. The system is currently designed so that a child’s shot at success depends on what zip code they happen to live in. We are not naïve enough to think that all inequities can be erased, but our social compact demands that education be the great equalizer. Right now, it isn’t. In Illinois, it’s the great divider.
Over the last 18 months, a bipartisan group of legislators has been meeting with education advocates and policy experts to analyze our current problems and various solutions. There was much agreement (something rare in our politics today), and together they embraced a new model called “Evidence Based Funding,” or SB1.
This model looks at 27 factors in each school district to determine what they need to spend in order to educate their students well. Then it looks at each district’s local ability to provide funds and calculates what the state must contribute to close the funding gap. Importantly, it considers critical needs like special education, English language learners, poverty, and regional cost differences.
Right now, for every dollar we spend on kids in well-off districts, the state sends only 81 cents to the poorer districts. We intentionally underfund and thus undereducate our neediest children. This must end. It is not a partisan issue; it is a moral one.
SB 1 helps level this playing field. We urge Gov. Bruce Rauner to sign the bill, as is. He has threatened to veto it, wrongly pitting downstate communities against Chicago, who he claims will benefit more. This is untrue. The bill treats all districts the same going forward and regularizes how teacher retirements are funded everywhere. In fact, nonpartisan analysts have determined that, overall, downstate districts will fare best under SB1 due to their high concentrations of poverty.
Our schools are preparing to open right now. Maintenance crews are cleaning desks and waxing floors; teachers are hurriedly preparing their classrooms for that wonderful, exhilarating thing called the First Day of School. Right now, we don’t know if the governor will sign the bill, because, as he stated, he only agrees with “90 percent” of it. In most schools, that’s an “A” grade, with some room for improvement.
If Gov. Rauner doesn’t sign SB1, some schools might not open.
That would be worse than a shame. And it’s preventable. Let’s do right now what we have failed to do for so long —begin to treat all Illinois students and communities fairly and give every child in Illinois the education they deserve.
— Kathi Griffin is president of the Illinois Education Association. Dan Montgomery is president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers.