WTH: Fix Illinois’ School Funding System

“A step in the right direction”

“Moving Chicago students “toward equality”

“An important step forward”

These are words that leaders around Illinois were using to describe the school funding reform bill that narrowly passed out of the State Senate yesterday. These statements don’t make me feel like we are on the brink of any kind of sweeping reform becoming law in our state.

Even the bill’s chief architect, Senator Andy Manar, called it “a down payment on getting this right.” And I guess that’s the question that sticks out in my mind. What does it take to get it right?

I don’t mean to downplay the Manar bill. I remember what it was like trying to get a school funding reform measure through even one house of the General Assembly; so I know it took a lot of hard work from a lot of good people. And it is a step in right direction. But, right now I feel a little like a kid on a road trip. I don’t so much want to hear that we’re going in the right direction – that’s nice. I have only one question: are we there yet?

When I look at the cautious statements from yesterday, I take that as a “no.”

While Democratic leaders were desperately trying to break through the cloud of realism and hail the bill’s passage as a major achievement, Republicans were busy framing the bill as “a bailout for Chicago.” Governor Bruce Rauner said that it would make him “uncomfortable” to sign a bill that would take money away from school districts.

Uncomfortable? Really?

Even if the school districts that would be losing the money have large reserves and the districts that would receive increased funding would be the ones with the weakest property tax bases; the ones with the largest populations of low-income students.  You know, the districts most in need of increased school funding.

Surely, the Governor would be at least somewhat comfortable in year-one of the Manar plan. There’s a hold harmless clause in there to make sure even districts with far more resources than they need don’t lose a thing. That sounds like it should make a venture capitalist turned public servant and his many wealthy friends very comfortable.

But, are we there yet?  No.  Not yet.

And how about the action on the other side of the capitol rotunda in Springfield? The Speaker of the House, Democrat Michael J. Madigan has established a task force to study school funding in Illinois (for those who don’t know, that’s usually legislative code for “we should be doing something on this issue, but we’re really not ready to do anything…but we don’t want to look like we’re doing nothing.”)

The House is going to have to take up Senator Manar’s proposal in order for it to move forward in the process, but that chamber is working through the Task Force to develop its own plan.

So…are we there yet?

Well, a Madigan spokesperson assures us that the Task Force will “take the best elements of the Manar plan and try to incorporate them.”

I’ll take that for a no.

With an “uncomfortable” governor and an under-motivated House, this may not be a very fast ride for the Manar legislation.

But, just for kicks, let’s imagine a world where Senator Manar’s bill became law. It would do a lot of good for children and families immediately. Surely we’d be able to answer that standing question with a resounding “YES!”

Or maybe not.

We have to get to equity; a state in which the children with the greatest need get the most money. The Manar measure focuses on making sure that everyone gets their fair slice of the pie. But, Illinois still ranks dead last in overall state contribution for P-12 education. What do we do about adequacy of school funding?  How do we make sure that the pie is big enough in the first place?

Crickets…

The hard reality is that there does not seem to be the political will in the citizens of the state or in the legislature to do real school funding reform. And that state of affairs has persisted throughout three decades and the school careers of countless thousands of poor children in this state.

That’s a long ride. And we still are not there.

In the words of Martin Luther King Jr., “Justice too long delayed is justice denied”. This trip is way past being an injustice. We need to get there…and fast.

WHAT DO YOU THINK?
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Chris Butler is first a husband and a dad. He has been involved across the spectrum of public engagement activities and has worked with a number of diverse constituencies in urban and suburban communities. He has also been involved in several political campaigns including his service as a youth and young adult coordinator for Barack Obama’s primary bid for U.S. Senate. Chris worked as deputy campaign manager and field director for A+ Illinois where he developed a strong, statewide field operation including over 500 organizations and 50,000 individuals around the state working to bring adequacy and equity to Illinois’ school funding system and as the director of advocacy and outreach at New Schools for Chicago, a leader in school reform in Chicago. Chris is a 2006 graduate of the Ministry Training Institute and holds a degree in civic and political engagement from Northeastern Illinois University.

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