One of the few issues uniting Illinois lawmakers from both parties is the desire to revamp the way our state funds schools. That's because the current system has made Illinois schools the most inequitable in the country. A group of 20 lawmakers recently spent six months drafting a framework for a different plan. It would ensure that no school loses money, and all additional funds would be distributed through a new evidence-based model. A trio of commission members — two Democrats and a Republican — united behind one version of this plan. But last week, Republican Sen. Jason Barickman of Bloomington filed a significantly different version. He spoke with our education reporter, Dusty Rhodes, who began by asking him about how he would calculate the hold-harmless provision.
DR: If I’m reading this correctly, the equity grant is taken out of the base funding minimum.
Rep. Barickman: That’s right.
DR: Okay. My understanding of the goal of the commission — isn’t that goal equity?
Rep. Barickman: Yes. The equity grants, which used to be called the poverty grant, is not driven by evidence and best practices. It’s an example of how the legislature has reacted to the broken General State Aid formula, by attaching band-aids on top of it. So we want to drive as much money as possible through the Evidence-Based Model. So the more money you push through it, it’s going to get to the districts that are in the most need.
DR: But what goes through the Evidence-Based Model will only be new dollars, correct?
Rep. Barickman: Well, it depends on what you’re calling “new dollars.”
DR: I mean, there’s a hold-harmless — the “base-funding minimum” — right?
Rep. Barickman: Right.
Rep. Barickman: Money on top of that.
Rep. Barickman: Yeah. So that’s right. I think our bill pushes hundreds of millions of dollars through the Evidence-Based funding model.
DR: But you’re taking the equity grant or poverty grant or whatever the band-aid was called out of the hold-harmless.
Rep. Barickman: We’ve got a hold-harmless that reflects the funding level through what would become the “old” General State Aid formula, and then we’re allocating hundreds of millions of dollars through the new Evidence-Based Model where they’re needed the most.
DR: I understand that. But this is not an appropriation bill, so all of that would be in a theoretical appropriation. Another part is the Chicago Public Schools Block Grant. Maybe you could just take a second to explain the Chicago Block Grant and why you want to get rid of it.
Rep. Barickman: Well, I’ll do my best. Long before most people were in the legislature, a law was changed which baked in certain funding levels to Chicago Public Schools, called the block grant. And the block grant, on a year-to-year basis, affords the Chicago public school system about $250 million more than they would get if they were treated like every other school district. And so there’s been nearly unanimous agreement, by members of both political parties, that the block grant ought to be done away with. The legislation that I’ve proposed does exactly that.
DR: But a bill filed by Rep. Will Davis (D-Homewood) takes a different approach.
Rep. Barickman: That bill bakes the funding levels of the block grant into the hold-harmless, meaning that they’ll get that into perpetuity.
DR: Okay. But in the explanation you just gave me, you said everybody has agreed that block grant isn’t fair, and yet Rep. Davis’s bill got almost unanimous votes in committee. It’s got a Republican co-sponsor. Actually chief co-sponsor.
Rep. Barickman: Well, that’s their prerogative. Here’s the way we’ve tried to approach it in my bill in the Senate: There’s been a long-standing effort by John Cullerton (D-Chicago), president of the senate, to bring parity into the education funding system. And the idea that he likes to put forward is that the Chicago Public Schools system pays for its own pension costs, whereas the State of Illinois pays for pensions for every other school district around the state. On that issue, he’s right. However, CPS also gets many other benefits under the law that aren’t extended to every other school district. They’re given flexibility as to how they manage their personnel, staffing, and other issues that bring down the cost.
DR: And you’ve put those things in your adjoining bill...
Rep. Barickman: That’s right. So what I’ve striven for is real parity. So we take away the block grant, we pick up their pensions, and we extend the management control that CPS has to every other school district in the state.