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Thursday, Jan. 20, 2011 01:56 pm

State education funding woefully inadequate

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Properly educating a schoolchild in Illinois takes upwards of $2,200 more per pupil than the state currently ensures, according to the latest report from Illinois’ Education Funding Advisory Board.

EFAB, which earlier this month issued its first findings since 2005, is charged with recommending to state lawmakers an appropriate “foundation level” – the minimum amount to be spent on each student from local tax money and general state aid combined. EFAB determines its recommendation, which doesn’t factor in specialized state grants or federal aid, by analyzing the expenditures of low-spending, high-performing schools.

The board’s latest report recommends an $8,360 per pupil expenditure, far more than the $6,119 approved by the General Assembly for the past two years, and far more than the $6,416 level adopted last week by the Illinois State Board of Education in its Fiscal Year 2012 budget request.

“As advocates of education, we would like to fulfill the EFAB recommendation, but we also know it’s not possible in today’s economic climate,” said ISBE superintendent Christopher Koch in a news release Jan. 13. Though state lawmakers last week approved a major income tax increase, a spending cap and the state’s debt will continue to restrict program growth.

EFAB’s recommendation would cost the state an additional $4 billion, whereas ISBE’s pared down general state aid recommendation would cost a little more than $530 million more, still an 11.6 percent increase from this year’s general state aid education spending. ISBE’s overall budget proposal seeks a total increase of about 10 percent.

Ken Swanson, EFAB member and president of the Illinois Education Association, says EFAB doesn’t expect the state to bridge the $2,200 gap anytime soon but notes that it’s an important gauge to keep in mind. “What I believe the gap in those two numbers tells you is that the state has a long way to go to get to the point where it’s living up to its responsibility to the students of Illinois,” Swanson says. He adds: “Many property-tax payers, if they took a close look at this, should be upset that the state is way behind and the taxpayer has been asked to step in.”

It will be months before lawmakers decide whether to implement ISBE’s low but optimistic foundation level request, and districts still don’t know other factors, such as property tax revenues and student attendance, that will determine how much general state aid they’ll receive next year. For those reasons, District 186 hasn’t projected what a foundation level increase would mean for Springfield schools. However, if ISBE’s recommended increase had been in effect this year, it would have meant an additional $4 million, says Joe Bascio, the district’s payroll and budgeting director. Currently, property taxes only bring in about $4,600 per student, with general state aid providing about $1,500 per student. The district also receives additional federal and state grants that are required to be spent in specific ways, such as transportation or special education.

Sean Noble, policy director for Voices for Illinois Children, says the difference between EFAB’s suggested foundation level and what’s actually possible is one indication that the state is failing to meet students’ needs. But he adds that general state aid isn’t the only critical aspect of education funding. Also important are such programs as bilingual education and early childhood education, which in Fiscal Year 2010 saw a 10 percent cut in state funding.

Concluding its report, EFAB states that it recognizes the fiscal constraints with which Illinois is currently grappling but adds that the board “believes the goals must be set without compromise and the politicians, policymakers and citizens of the state bear the responsibility to find the will and the means to achieve the goals.”  

Contact Rachel Wells at rwells@illinoistimes.com.

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