SPRINGFIELD — A judge issued a ruling this month that reads as a scathing indictment of the way his state funds and oversees public education.
“To keep its promise of adequate schools for all children, the state must rally more forcefully around troubled schools,” the judge wrote, later adding, “The distance between the rich and poor students in this state is great enough to remove any doubt about the importance of being careful to send money where it is most needed.”
It’s a message that may sound familiar to anyone who’s been following the debate over public school funding in Illinois for the past several years, but the words were written by Connecticut Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher. At the end of an 11-year legal battle, Moukawsher gave his state’s Legislature 180 days to overhaul many aspect of its education system, including the way it distributes money to local schools.
The Kansas Supreme Court, which previously ruled its state’s funding scheme unconstitutional, heard arguments last week in an ongoing lawsuit, and the high courts in Pennsylvania and Washington each heard similar cases in the prior two weeks. The Washington Supreme Court ruled that state’s funding plan unconstitutional in 2012.
Aside from the court proceedings, these states have something in common: They all do a better job than Illinois of balancing funding for low- and high-poverty school districts. Illinois has the widest gap between total state and local money spent per student in its poorest districts compared with its wealthiest, according to a 2015 study from The Education Trust.
As a bipartisan commission that Gov. Bruce Rauner assembled works on a proposed funding overhaul, these court decisions offer a glimpse of what could be in store for Illinois if the Democratic-controlled General Assembly and the Republican governor fail to reach an agreement.
“I think you would only logically come to the conclusion that Illinois is primed for that type of a decision,” said state Sen. Andy Manar of Bunker Hill, a leading voice for Senate Democrats on education funding reform. “Because if it’s bad in Kansas, it’s awful in Illinois in the eyes of a court. … That’s why we ought to try to proactively address the issue as a Legislature.”
The possibility of a court decision in Illinois isn’t purely hypothetical. A lawsuit from the Chicago Urban League challenging the funding formula has been pending since 2008 in Cook County Circuit Court.
But members of the governor’s commission, including Manar, say the group has been finding common ground on an issue that can divide lawmakers along both partisan and regional lines.
“Whether or not this translates into an actual piece of legislation remains to be seen,” Manar said. “But I think there is broad consensus that distribution of state funds — the formula — should recognize the unique needs of every school district, which we don’t do today. … And recognition of that is a victory.”
State Sen. Jason Barickman of Bloomington, a leader on education funding for Senate Republicans and another commission member, said he sees broad agreement forming around the so-called “evidence-based model,” which would use measures such as class sizes and the number of students who require special education services to determine how much money each district receives. The group also seems to recognize the need to pay special attention to districts with high concentrations of poverty, Barickman said.
“If you can have an agreement as to what the model is and how you’re going to handle issues like poverty, then you move to, really, the tougher policy choices,” he said, such as whether student performance will be part of the funding equation and how local property tax revenue should be factored in.
The commission met Wednesday and reviewed the various funding proposals that circulated in the Legislature this spring and the plan that was ultimately approved, which kept the current formula but pumped in more than $600 million in additional funding to give a boost to high-poverty schools and make sure that no district received less than it did the previous year. The group is slated to take up property taxes at its Oct. 5 meeting.
One topic the commission, composed almost entirely of lawmakers, has yet to delve into is the politics of passing a school funding overhaul, including provisions that prevent school districts from losing money as a result.
But Beth Purvis, the Rauner education secretary who’s heading the commission, said that the time for that conversation will come.
Ignoring the political components of the discussion “sort of defeats the purpose of having a council that is overwhelmingly members of the General Assembly,” Purvis said at Wednesday’s meeting.
Meanwhile, Rauner said last week he hopes the commission can beat the Feb. 1 deadline he set for it to complete its work.
“I’d like to have that be part of our grand compromise, if we can, on a budget,” Rauner said. “I think that would be the right time to do that.”