School funding needs overhaul

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Our Opinion

By Dave Bell

A task force that has been studying the state’s current system of funding school districts has come to a not-so-startling conclusion: the system is broken.
“The way we fund public education in Illinois is currently very complex,” state Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, told reporters on Monday. “But one piece of it is very simple: It isn’t working.”
The inequities of the system are well documented. Wealthy districts have plenty of property tax revenue to finance luxurious schools and expansive curriculums; the general state aid funds are a small percentage of their school funding picture. Poorer districts, on the other hand, depend on general state aid for the majority of their funding. The result: suburban Chicago districts and other wealthy areas like Edwardsville aren’t feeling the pinch while poorer districts are forced to cut staff and class offerings just to keep the doors open.
It’s a system that is, indeed, broken. And a fix is desperately needed because the divide between the haves and the have-nots is widening.
Manar’s update this week advocated shifting some of the state aid allocations from the wealthy districts to the poor districts. That plan faces some tough legislative sledding, but at least it starts a discussion that could result in some positive movement for cash-starved downstate districts that are facing financial catastrophes under the current system.
“Manar’s plan may be the best shot we have going right now,” Vandalia Superintendent Rich Well told The Leader-Union on Wednesday. “Getting more money from the state probably isn’t happening. So we need to be looking at how we can make the funding more equitable for districts like ours.
 “We’re getting all kinds of educational reforms that will cost us money to put in place, and we’re only getting 89 percent of our former funding from the state.”
Obviously, a Robin Hood funding plan that steals from the rich districts to give to the poor ones will not go down well with the wealthy districts. No one is inclined to give up any turf in the school funding battle. But the percentage of the rich districts’ total funding that comes from state aid payments is miniscule in many cases. In contrast, more than half of the Vandalia district’s budget comes from the state.
Well and several other downstate superintendents have been meeting with Manar as he’s studied the funding issue. They need to keep on top of the proposal as it winds its way through the legislative process. Changing the way funds are distributed may be a more viable option than pleading for more funds from a state that’s essentially bankrupt.