SPRINGFIELD - Is Chicago getting more than its fair share of the state's education dollars? The answer depends, of course, on who is responding. Downstaters say yes, Chicago is getting more than their fair share, and Chicagoans say no, the system is unfair. But instead of continuing the argument based on political perceptions, an Illinois Senate panel on education funding is delving into the school financing controversy.
At the Senate's Advisory Committee on Education Funding Tuesday, members heard from several experts on the status of school financing and the state's educational funding discrepancies.
“Education funding is a perennial topic that provokes some of the most passionate debate of any statewide issue,” State Senator Dave Luechtefeld, co-chair of the group, said. “I taught school for 30 plus years and have served on both sides of the negotiating table when it comes to planning local school budgets. What I find interesting is that despite the popular notion that education funding has gone down, it has increased 55 percent during the past decade when you account for federal, state and local funding sources.”
One of the biggest sticking points of the educational funding debate is the marked shift away from foundational level grants, originally intended to equalize funding for schools, and an increased usage of poverty grants which largely benefit Chicago Public Schools (CPS). Over the last decade, poverty grants funding has increased from $300 million to $1.8 billion. Luechtefeld pointed out that while only 18 percent of the state’s students attend CPS, they account for 48 percent of all state poverty grants.
“The original intent of the General State Aid formula was to provide a base level of funding for all students despite where they reside. It’s a concern to see that the state has shifted away from that system, while more and more state dollars are being funneled into grants that benefit a small percentage of the state’s total student population,” Luechtefeld said. “Poverty is poverty, right? So with that in mind shouldn’t an economically-disadvantaged student in southern Illinois be afforded the same educational funding levels as a similar student in another part of the state?”
Poverty grants vary from school district to school district; however, some metropolitan schools receive nearly 8.5 times what some downstate schools get. CPS poverty grant students qualify for $3,000 in funds versus some downstate schools that only receive $355 per pupil.
Poverty in Illinois is not defined by census data; instead, the poverty formula is determined by the Department of Human Services. The State Board of Education estimated that using that formula costs taxpayers upwards of $1.6 billion more per year more than if the state used census data.
“This figure comes from the state’s inflated poverty numbers. The state’s high determination of poverty, coupled with the growing emphasis on funding education using poverty grants, means some northeastern schools are receiving a disproportionate amount of state funds based on an arbitrary funding method with little oversight during the General Assembly’s appropriations period,” said Luechtefeld.
Luechtefeld also questioned why CPS receives guaranteed block grants each year for special education and early childhood education dollars. In contrast, downstate and suburban schools must compete for that funding.
“Someone needs to answer why certain schools get a lion’s share of poverty grant and early childhood education funding off of the top through block grants, when all other schools must submit paperwork to the State Board of Education in order to make a ‘claim’ at those dollars,” Luechtefeld said.
Luechtefeld encouraged citizens to review the Senate Republican Caucus’s Report, “School Funding in Illinois: An Examination,” available at www.luechtefeld.senategop.org. Another meeting of the Advisory Committee will be scheduled for next month.