The seriousness of Illinois’ school funding problems became a focal issue in the Quinn- Rauner Governor’s race this fall, where many voters were surprised by some of the statistics that came out during the campaign. Illinois is the worst in the nation when it comes to a state’s share of education funding—25% compared to a national average that is double that percentage. And the situation has been getting worse–the state has cut $1.4 billion from its K-12 education budget since 2009, a 17% decrease. On top of that, the disparity between the average spent per student for the 20% of wealthiest school districts compared to 20% with highest need ($15,000 versus $10,000) makes Illinois one of the most regressive state funding systems in the nation.
Shortly after the election, the School Funding Reform Act of 2014 was introduced in the Illinois State legislature. The bill proposes single funding formula based on students’ needs, accounting for factors common in low-income districts such as poverty, special education, and a higher percentage of English language learners. Advance Illinois is an independent organization supporting the bill. They have launched a website called “Funding IL’s Future” (http://fundingthefuture.org). Proponents of the legislation say all districts would retain some level of state funding and not lose more than a predetermined amount, but this is not pacifying most wealthier districts. Some communities are now mobilizing to block the bill’s passage. And even if the bill passes, would the new Governor sign it? It is true that he made education reform a focal point of his campaign, but the political reality is that far more Rauner voters live in wealthy school districts than poor ones. Even if quite a bit of political horse trading is ahead, it is doubtful that Rauner is going to accept the status quo for educational standards that he has characterized as a national embarrassment.
To make the situation even murkier, Rauner ran on a pledge to let the state income tax increase expire and this could put the state’s contribution to school funding in even more dire shape The Governor-elect has already said that Illinois’ budget problems are even worse than he thought and was open to all options to address it. Political pundits have interpreted this as him opening the door to other forms of tax increases in Illinois if he will not allow the state income tax increase to be extended.
Two things are certain in relation to education funding in 2015–the groups that are seeking a less regressive tax system through the School Funding Reform Act of 2014 has become a substantial political force, and Governor-elect Rauner ran on the platform that he is a businessman who knows how to solve problems. Given these two political realities, the likelihood that changes of education funding reform in the next few years is greater than it has been in a very long time. Who will be the winners and losers in that reform, however, is anything but clear.
Robert Hoyt, Ph.D.
Allied Health Professionals LLC