Illinois School Funding

Illinois State Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, watches the debate on the education funding bill from the floor of the Illinois House during a special session at the Illinois State Capitol on Monday in Springfield.

Justin L. Fowler

SPRINGFIELD — Macon County superintendents are breathing easier after lawmakers on Tuesday approved a school funding overhaul that supporters say will increase aid to all of the state's more than 800 districts and eliminate large disparities between rich and poor schools.

“I'm grateful that legislators reached a compromise on a school funding formula that will benefit all students,” Decatur Superintendent Paul Fregeau said. “This relieves a lot of stress for a lot of people.”

Fregeau and several other area superintendents said they were eager to review the details of the legislation, details of which were negotiated by legislative leaders in closed-door meetings over recent days.

The Senate voted 38-13 to send the measure to Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, who has said he'll sign it quickly to get money to districts starting a new school year. The House passed the bill late Monday.

Lawmakers have tried unsuccessfully for years to replace the current school funding system. This year's state budget required for the first time that the formula be changed, and provided an additional $350 million to help pay for it.

No money can go to districts, however, until a new plan is in place. Although school officials have said they will be able to open classrooms for the new school year, many districts have worried they would run out of money if a plan wasn't approved soon.

Sen. Andy Manar, the bill's sponsor, said the plan will fund schools fairly "for the first time in decades."

"There will not be another generation of students that are subjected to inequity — the worst in the country — after this bill becomes law," said Manar, a Democrat from Bunker Hill whose district includes Decatur. "That's something worth saying today."

Republican Sens. Chapin Rose of Mahomet and Dale Righter of Mattoon also issued statements praising the bill. In a statement, Rose said the legislation had changed positively since the first overhaul proposed by Democrats several years ago.

He said the state’s failure to properly fund its schools causes higher local property taxes.

“This overreliance on property taxpayers is killing us — killing our downstate communities to the extent that today, through this legislation, we’re starting to turn that corner and right the ship,” Rose said.

Righter hailed the legislation as a “major bipartisan compromise” that would keep schools open.

Without school funding legislation, Fregeau has said Decatur schools would run out of money in mid-November, and several other Macon County superintendents said they could not make it through the school year.

That includes Meridian School District, where Superintendent Dan Brue had said funding would run out before the end of January. Brue said Tuesday that he was pleased lawmakers had found a compromise and passed the legislation.

“I'm not totally in favor of every little piece that was in the bill, but I'm relieved that the general state aid is coming our way soon,” he said. “It will secure us for the school year so we can finish like we planned. I'm happy.”

Illinois schools did not receive the first payment of the year, which was due on Aug. 15, and Brue said he doubts that schools will receive the second payment on Aug. 30. He said he is hopeful that those payments will be made up before the end of the fiscal year.

Kristen Kendrick-Heikle, superintendent of Warrensburg-Latham schools, said she was thrilled that the state had adopted a more up-to-date way to fund education.

"This is more equitable, but I'm uncertain, because this happened so quickly that I haven't had a chance to review the fine details,” she said. “I'm excited we should be receiving general state aid payments soon.”

Mount Zion Superintendent Travis Roundcount said Tuesday that he had not seen enough details of the legislation to comment. The district had solid financial reserves, he previously said, and administrators had not determined a “crisis date.”

The legislation passed Tuesday also provides $75 million in tax credits for people who contributed to private school scholarships.

Teacher unions and some school officials oppose the credits, saying taxpayer money shouldn't be used to fund private schools. They fear the scholarships — which lawmakers say would benefit as many as 10,000 students — will reduce enrollment at public schools, some of which are struggling to maintain enough students to stay open.

"A parent has the right to choose a private education for their child," said Superintendent Andrea Evers from downstate Cairo, a poor district that has lost population. "It should not be on the backs of taxpayers."

Still, others said having more cash was critical.

The tax credit program will expire after five years if lawmakers don't extend it. The credits would be worth 75 percent of a taxpayer's annual contributions to a scholarship fund, with a maximum credit of $1 million annually. The money may be donated to a specific school but not a specific student.

Students receiving the scholarships must have a household income of less than 300 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $73,000 annually for a family of four.

Under Illinois' current school funding system, districts must rely heavily on property taxes to fund schools. That's created large differences in funding levels, with some wealthier districts spending four times more per student than districts with less property tax wealth.

Under the new plan, the state will determine how much money each district needs to adequately educate its students, taking into consideration the number who live in poverty, are English learners or need special education services. The state then looks at how much money the district is able to generate from property taxes, and directs aid first to districts that need it to reach the spending target.

The legislation also provides money to help Chicago Public Schools make payments to its teacher pension funds, as Illinois does for other districts, and gives districts relief from some state mandates, such as allowing them to offer fewer days of physical education each week.

Herald & Review staff writers Valerie Wells and Tom Lisi contributed to this story. 

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