Gov. Bruce Rauner's efforts to equalize school funding in Illinois have gotten a lot of publicity lately, since the bipartisan commission he established concluded by issuing a report earlier this month. But another group of lawmakers was simultaneously tackling the same issue. It was lead by State Sen. Kimberly Lightford (D-Maywood). What conclusion did that group come to?
“Very similar conclusions that were incorporated into the final plan,” Lightford said. “So I appreciate that (Illinois Secretary of Education) Beth Purvis and the governor’s staff were attending some of the meetings that we had, and began to kind of piggy-back off of some of the discussions that we were having. And I think it yields some good results.
“If I had a takeaway from the governor’s commission, it would be that finally not only a few members were involved, but there was many more legislators all hearing it at the same time, and were able to ask questions and dive in and get a bigger picture, a bigger understanding and building of a consensus around something that’s really critical and that we have to fix.”
But the commission’s “final plan” was delivered in the form of a report, not a piece of proposed legislation.
“Well, I tend to be optimistic about the procedure and the process on how we attain legislative initiatives and how they become law,” Lightford said, “also seeing sometimes the unintended consequences that are created and you have to come back and fix those things when you do rush things. I felt that a five-month period would not, in no way, get us to an education funding formula. I never felt that we would get there. I always thought that we would have a good starting point.
“There was a consensus building that had to take shape before we could do anything to that magnitude. The education funding formula is nothing small. We’re talking billions of dollars. That’s significant. So I knew, after serving on the education committee for 18 years, that there was no way we were going to have a bill in five months.”
The goal of the governor's commission was to find some way to close the gap between property-rich districts -- that spend as much as $30,000 per student per year -- and lower-income districts, that can afford maybe one-quarter of that amount. At one of its final meetings, the governor's commission tested some key concepts by feeding $250 million through a rough draft of its new formula, known as "the evidence-based model," and calculating the payoff for a dozen districts. One senator did some cocktail-napkin math and pointed out that, using the proposed new plan, it would take 18 years for a poor rural district to achieve adequate funding.
“When you’re only putting in $250 million or $300 million or $350 million, you’re going to get small results -- small results like the example you just gave me barely moves the ball," Lightford said. "I believe we also came to a consensus that in order to implement the idea of the ‘Evidence-Based Model’ would be a huge expense, and it’s money that we do not have, unless we generate a lot of revenue that could go within this package. And so that number originally was suggested that it would cost $5 billion to fully-implement. And then after they ran those numbers, they came back and said, ‘Well, maybe it will cost about $3.86 billion. We can get that number down a little lower.’ Which is so far off from what we could ever come up with in a number of years.
“I think that was part of the reason why it was determined there’s no way we can come up with a funding formula this quickly because the distribution model was so important...based on how much money we’re believing we can come up with. So there’s a huge disconnect financially on what the state can offer versus what our kids need,” Lightford said.
The money that the state would funnel through the new formula would only be new dollars. All districts would get to keep their current funding (on a per-pupil basis) under the new plan’s “hold harmless” provision.
“I don’t know that I agree that the hold-harmless is necessary,” Lightford said. “I would say that it’s in there because when you think about the politics of a legislator sharing with their school districts that they’re going to take a decrease in funding from the prior year, knowing that all of our school districts have been under this pro-ration (cuts) for years, and now you’re going to come and say ok, we’re going to take away from what you’re receiving… I think the idea was that if we could take all the districts and not take away from where they currently are, that they’d be in a position where we’d know that they can maintain, because that’s what they’re doing right now.
“But I’ve always been of the mindset that I have no desire to bring down kids who do well to lift the bottom up. I think school districts that do well, we should keep them excelling, and I wouldn’t want to do a takeaway from them. But we have to, at the same time, find out how do we bring those school districts up, and those kids that are low-achieving -- how do we give them the additional support that they need? That’s really what hold-harmless says and does. It holds the district at the level that they are and then new dollars would go to help bring the bottom up.”
However, Lightford admits this method slows down any effort to achieve equitable funding.
“It becomes much more challenging to get to the kids who need the help the most the quickest,” she said. “But you have to get a bill that could actually pass the legislature, and that’s where it gets complicated, where if you tell the legislator, ‘We’re going to just hold your districts harmless, they’re not going to receive any additional dollars right away but there’s no take-away’ -- perhaps they’d be more inclined to support the initiative. So no matter what we put together, at the end of the day, it needs 30 votes out of the Senate and 60 votes out of the House and it needs the governor to sign off on it.”