Lawmakers have been trying to change the way Illinois funds schools for years now, with no luck. But a new plan called the Evidence Based Model seems to be gaining momentum. State Rep. Will Davis, a Democrat from Homewood, is sponsoring this legislation. He sat down with our Education Desk reporter Dusty Rhodes just a few days after his bill made it through committee.
DR: And it has passed committee with bipartisan votes. There was only one vote against it. How big of a victory was that?
Rep. Davis: Well, I’d say that’s huge.
And I owe a lot of the bipartisanship to Rep. Bob Pritchard (R-Hinckley). I mean, this is a complete gamechanger. And I think our Republican colleagues really want to be a part of really changing the way we do this, and I appreciate their support, you know, and if we have to help some of the other members with things that they are struggling with in their districts, so be it. So my goal would be if there are other amendments, outside of just amending the funding formula itself, or other bills, that we look to try to build consensus on those bills, those bills run first before we even get to HB 2808.
DR: Like a House grand bargain?
Rep. Davis: Well, I don’t want to characterize it as a grand bargain, but we know that for members to feel good about what we’re attempting to do, we know that there’s some other issues that we have to figure out how to address. Otherwise, there is no HB 2808 at the end of the day.
DR: The formula Illinois currently uses relies on property taxes to fund schools. That means districts with high property values can easily raise enough money to provide schools with all the amenities. But districts with working-class households, low-cost rentals or just farmland struggle to support their local schools. Plans that proposed shifting money from rich districts to poor districts have failed.
So Davis's legislation doesn't change the amount of state aid any district currently receives.
Rep. Davis: Mind you there is a hold harmless in the bill, so nobody will lose money. Now, when we talk about the new dollars that get pushed out, we have a distribution model that suggests, based on our calculations, that the districts that need it the most would receive those dollars before a district who is at 90 percent or even higher than 90 percent or even beyond 100 percent of their adequacy target.
DR: You may be thinking wait, what's an adequacy target? That's the funding goal that will be set for each school district if the Evidence-Based Model becomes law. Think of this model as a recipe for good schools. The version under consideration by the legislature has a list of 27 ingredients. All 27 are backed up by scholarly studies but honestly, your gut would probably tell you the same thing. These are common-sense items like smaller class sizes, full-day kindergarten, librarians, counselors, social workers and computers.
When you tally up how much of each ingredient a district needs, and how much it will cost to provide it, you've got the district's adequacy target.
But this is where it gets tricky. Like, exactly how many kids can a first-grade teacher handle? How about a ninth-grade teacher? How many librarians does a school district need? Does every student need a computer? Or can they share?
On top of that, there's another layer of complexity that educators refer to as "poverty concentration." Think of a school where 75 percent of the students have comfortable homes, college-educated parents, and family vacations every summer. Now think of a different school where 75 percent of students live in substandard housing with parents working minimum-wage jobs. Studies show it takes significantly more resources to educate the students at that second school than the students at the first school. The new formula needs to make that happen, Davis says.
Rep. Davis: You know, we’re told in some wealthier suburbs that they have poverty. You know, that poverty may be only 10, 15 or 20 percent. But you’ve got some districts where that poverty is at least 50 percent or higher.
DR: Okay, and you said you’re waiting for some kind of agreement that will address concentration of poverty, and how to weight that in the formula.
Rep. Davis: Those are the districts that we are trying to figure out if there’s a way to offer them some additional resources above what they would otherwise get through the formula, to help deal with their poverty issues that may offer them more counselors, you know, more instructional coaches, that give them the equal opportunity to be successful.
DR: So one thing I notice you did not mention about steps you need to take before you call your bill on the floor — you did not mention running the numbers. You did not mention feeding the data from 852 school districts into the formula that you come up with and producing a spreadsheet. And that’s just a natural step. I mean, I noticed that in the committee, when you presented your bill, the very first question was: Do you have a spreadsheet? So are you going to do that? And why have you not done it?
Rep. Davis: Well, I think it’s important to do that, because everyone will want to see how their districts fare. The only caution is that, you know, we have a formula and we want to understand the nuances to the formula because naturally if you just run the numbers and throw spreadsheets out to everybody, you know, I don’t want that to be the “Well, if my school loses, I’m out.” Now we’ve already said that there’s a hold harmless, so no school will lose any money. But again, when you see it on the spreadsheet, it’s just the way you extrapolate what you see versus what I’ve told you. So what we hope to do is make sure we understand the nuances to the formula.
We will run numbers. But we want to be able to make sure we understand why there are the fluctuations before we just throw it out there and then we have members tearing it apart. We want to be prepared in a way that we can answer the questions adequately for the members when they see those kinds of things. We’re not trying to be deceptive. Again — I could put this on the floor a month from now, but if I haven’t run the numbers, nobody’s going to vote for it. So I recognize that as something that has to be done, but we want to be methodical in our approach, because many of us feel that if we fail this time, we may not get another opportunity to do this. So we know numbers will have to come, and at the time when we feel good about where we are, we’ll make sure that members have those numbers long before this bill ever gets to the floor.
DR: I feel like the Evidence-Based Model has a lot of toggles in it, a lot of switches that if you put it in the A position, you get one result. If you put it in the B position, it’s a bajillion dollars. For example, if you base the formula on average daily attendance, that’s one amount. If you base it on enrollment, that’s a whole different amount. There’s a big thing called the “regionalization factor” — are teachers’ salaries the same across the state or do they fluctuate by region? Of course they do. So where do you set that regionalization factor? How many of those toggles do you think there are? I think somebody is trying to line up the toggles to get the best results.
Rep. Davis: Well, we know that those are factors that we have to take into consideration, and when you’re dealing with ranges, like you talked about the regionalization factor, you know, that’s a range. You know, we’re not trying to throw a dart at them and that’s the one we’ll go with. We just want to make sure that we are thoughtful in what we set class size at, what we set regionalization at, so we can make sure we explain at least why we chose what we chose.
DR: Okay, well I think the people who listen to our station are very concerned about school funding, and I need you to promise me you’ll keep us posted.
Rep. Davis: Well absolutely, any time you call, I will be more than happy to talk.
DR: Thank you very much.