There's More Than One Way To Skin A School Budget

Apr 24, 2015

I should begin with a word of warning: This story contains several F-words -- and by that, I mean facts, figures and school funding formulas. These have been known to befuddle the very state officials in charge of understanding this stuff. For example, here’s Curt Bradshaw, a third-year member of the Illinois State Board of Education (commonly referred to as ISBE), thinking out loud at their last board meeting: 

“The definition of equity is certainly in the eye of the beholder, in some ways. For example: Is it more equitable for everyone to be treated the same under one formula? Or is it more equitable to everyone have the same dollar amount reduction?”

These students are pictured on Cairo School District's website.

Equity is a hot topic in Illinois education these days. Our state holds the dubious distinction of having the most inequitable school funding formula in the nation. 

Why? Because our system relies on property taxes. Think about a town like Cairo (Kair-Oh) compared to a north Chicago suburb like Kenilworth. The two towns are about the same size, but a 3,600-square-foot house in Kenilworth sells for $1.6 million, while a similar-size house in Cairo sells for $55,000. 

Illinois gives all schools — even super wealthy districts like Kenilworth — an annual allotment of money called General State Aid, or GSA. The GSA formula is supposed to give poor districts like Cairo enough money to provide kids with a basic education — called “the foundation level” -- even if that means giving Cairo a lot more actual dollars than Kenilworth.

But here’s the problem:

“The statute that’s written didn’t contemplate under-funding the foundation level. Thus, it puts us in a quandary of what do we do in that situation.”

Kenilworth school district's website documents the schools' above-average revenue and per-student expenditures.

That was Chris Koch, the former state school superintendent, speaking to a group of lawmakers. ISBE has been in this quandary for several years, because the state hasn’t given schools their full GSA since 2011. Instead, the amount has been “prorated” --  first by five percent, then 11 percent. Those cuts have been implemented proportionately — or “pro-rata”  — meaning that every district loses the same percentage.

But Kenilworth GSA is just under $120,000. So its 11 percent loss works out to only about $13,000. Cairo's state aid -- which includes a poverty supplement for its 450 low-income students -- is about $3 million. So a pro-rata cut means Cairo loses more than $360,000, about 30 times Kenilworth's loss.

Last month, in an attempt to fix the overall state budget, the legislature lopped more money from the current year’s school funding. And this time, the conversation turned to a different method of distributing the pain. In a Senate committee hearing, Democratic leader John Cullerton had a polite but testy exchange with Beth Purvis, recently-appointed secretary of education appointed by Governor Bruce Rauner.

“We were on the phone yesterday…” Cullerton said, "and there were two different methods discussed, pro-rata and per-pupil. And I expressed my interest in having it being done per-pupil.”

What is per-pupil? Ben Boer, from the advocacy group Advance Illinois, explained it to me.

“The amount that the state is short is a particular number," Boer said, "and we can divide that number by the number of students in the state, and that gives us the amount that we would have to cut per student in order to do a flat cut.”

Purvis agreed that per-pupil was a legitimate way to go. But the decision was up to the State Board of Education. Sort of. At the request of Gov. Rauner’s office, the board was not allowed to consider anything except the pro-rata method, but they plan to discuss the flat per-pupil formula next month.  Members could consider adopting it for the next budget.

For the rest this year, however, Kenilworth -- where most families live in million dollar homes will lose $12 per pupil. Cairo — which has been called the most desolate small town in America -- will lose $47 for each student.