I voted for legislation that will fix Illinois’ broken school funding formula. Illinois falls last among the states in the money it provides public education. And the money we spend disproportionally helps the wealthy. The state sends only 81 cents to low-income districts compared to every dollar it sends to affluent areas. Chicago schools get $3 for every $4 that goes to other districts.
The school funding formula overhaul began as Senate Bill 1. The measure recognizes the reality that, for example, large numbers of children living in poverty increases the price of a quality education. The new formula accounts for differences in property wealth and gives the funding edge to low-income districts. Chicago’s pension costs—$221 million this year—will now be covered by the state, as are those of every other public school district in Illinois.
These funding reforms have been decades in the making. Unfortunately, Gov. Bruce Rauner’s amendatory changes undid much of the reform. The state Senate was able to override the governor’s veto, but there were not enough votes in the House to follow suit.
Anticipating the governor’s veto, negotiations began among the four legislative caucuses. Both the House and Senate Republicans came to the table with a laundry list of requests. Among them was a tax credit scholarship proposal to help low-income families pay private and parochial school tuition. Even reduced in size and benefit as it was through the talks, I would have voted against it as a stand-alone bill. But as the price of an adequate and equitable school funding formula for Illinois public schools, I voted for the compromise.
It’s important to note that this is not the first state program to help families with their private school costs. The state this year will spend nearly $400 million on help for low-income college students; about $160 million of that is spent on private and parochial education. In addition the state today offers parents tax credits for educational expenses, at a cost of $80 million. Most Democrats voted last month to increase the benefit by 50 percent and its cost by $25 million. As a matter of public policy, the tax credit scholarship is thus not a groundbreaker for Illinois.
Second, the new program is a pilot—it automatically expires in five years. And it’s small. Approximately 6,000 students will be eligible for help if the size of the fund reaches the full $75 million. It’s hard to imagine how that number can seriously derail public education, given that there are approximately 2,000,000 youngsters in our state’s public schools.
The state spends well more than $8 billion on schools today, which means the $75 million for tax credits is a small fraction of overall school spending. The reform measure will add $350 million to the general school aid pot. Chicago schools stand to gain more than $450 million from the reform provisions. After years of financial problems, this legislation puts CPS on much firmer fiscal footing.
The bill I supported was a compromise, and it included provisions I didn’t like. But in good conscience I could not turn my back on the only opportunity in a generation to reform the way this state funds public education.