ISBE: This is no time to drop school aid reform

Education advocates call on governor to increase budget for schools

Gov. JB Pritzker has proposed no increase in funding for education for the 2022 fiscal year, which begins in July. That's a result of increasingly limited state dollars due to the pandemic. Education dollars did not see an increase for the current fiscal year either. But education advocates and officials say more is needed. Through a law adopted in 2017, the state promised to follow a formula for more equitable education funding, and proponents for it say skipping another year would have long-term costs that can't be justified by short-term savings.

During an April 1 hearing, the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) advocated a funding increase of $406.5 million. "We strongly believe this budget recommendation is necessary to provide the resources our schools, educators and students need to continue to recover equitably from the COVID-19 pandemic," ISBE chairman Darren Reisberg told legislators at the hearing, as reported by Capitol News Illinois.

Most of the increase requested would go toward the so-called evidence-based funding (EBF) formula from 2017, which promised to bring all districts in the state up to 90% adequate funding over the following decade. The formula calls for the state to increase its EBF contribution by $350 million per year. The formula makes clear that there have been deep disparities in dollars spent per student by local school districts, based on factors like location, family income and race. Under the new state school aid formula more dollars are supposed to flow to the most cash-poor districts.

Adequate funding is based on a formula that considers what districts need to provide a high-quality education. Costs like instructional materials, employee benefits and student activities are factors. Schools are largely funded by property taxes and, as a result, less is spent on students in poorer districts, leading to systemic inequity. The formula is meant to account for those differences, by making up with state funds what is lacking in local funds.

Despite the state's commitment to pay into the EBF formula and reach 90% adequate funding across the state by 2027, the formula was already "flat-funded" by the state for the current fiscal year due to the pandemic. Advance Illinois, a nonprofit that lobbies for education reforms, released an April report on the EBF model that uses data to show how gaps will widen if school funding remains the same for a second year.

In its first years, the EBF formula was working to close funding gaps. But a lack of funding would set progress back, according to Advance Illinois. Its report found that 50% of public school students statewide, and the "vast majority" of Hispanic/Latinx and Black students, are in school districts that need more than 30% more funding to provide high-quality education.

The pandemic has also meant schools have greater funding needs, from more staff to updated ventilation systems. Chuck Lane, superintendent for Centralia High School in southern Illinois, said extra pandemic relief from the federal government is going toward necessary costs. "It's not like we don't appreciate the amount of federal dollars flowing to our school, it's just that we know that's not sustainable." For instance, Lane said federal relief money can go towards hiring new teachers to help address pandemic-related learning challenges, but if the state chooses not to fund EBF, he questions how he would be able to keep those teachers in the long term.

The Advance Illinois report argues the state should honor investments promised before the pandemic, and give at least a $350 million increase to the formula each year. "The cost of fully funding EBF is high," said Melissa Figueira, with Advance Illinois. She said in all, up to $7 billion is needed to close the gap and reach the full amount of funding needed. "But the cost of failing to adequately and equitably fund the formula is far higher." Costs could include increased failures to meet students' needs and hikes in local property taxes, she said. The failure to increase spending could also mean Illinois jobs in education are less attractive.

"State investment, we believe, is needed to ensure that our students who were hardest hit by the pandemic have the increased access to learning time, support, staffing and opportunities that they need to recover," ISBE's Reisberg told legislators April 1. A final budget vote is likely still several weeks away.

Contact Rachel Otwell at rotwell@illinoistimes.com.

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