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Illinois confronts aid inequity

New York Teacher

School districts across the nation, including in New York State, have long grappled with inequitable funding. Now, a new school funding formula in Illinois, signed into law by Gov. Bruce Rauner in August, is being hailed as a historic first step toward making sure more state dollars go to the public schools that need the money the most.

The bill was designed to rectify the funding injustice: In Illinois, for every $1 in state funds that went to school districts with no low-income students, about 81 cents went to districts with the most low-income students.

The state of Illinois only contributes 38 percent of the funding for public schools, compared with the national average of 50 percent (in New York, the state contributes 41 percent of the funding). As a result, Illinois public schools rely on property taxes for 62 percent of their funding, which further widens the gap between wealthy districts and poorer ones.

“This bill drives new funding to the districts that need it most,” said Kurt Hilgendorf, a policy adviser for the Chicago Teachers Union. The formula funnels more money toward school districts with the most low-income students and provides relief for school districts with the lowest property-tax base.

The new aid formula will send $76 million more in state aid to beleaguered Chicago public schools this year. Chicago schools will get as much as $450 million under the legislation, including a one-time $221 million payment toward the teacher pension system, plus the green light from the state to allow the Chicago Board of Education to hike local property taxes. Going forward, the state, not the city of Chicago, will now cover the costs of Chicago teacher pensions, but the city will still bear responsibility for legacy pension costs.

The new school funding formula is tied to best practices that improve student performance, such as early childhood education, smaller class sizes and the provision of special education services, and it factors in the staffing each school needs, including teachers, aides, nurses and librarians.

Hilgendorf said the bill addressed the need to make state funding more equitable, but it didn’t tackle the adequacy of state funding for school districts in need. “There’s no equity possible unless you put real money in the formula,” he said. Hilgendorf estimated that an additional $5 billion was needed to fulfill the promise of fair funding for districts with the most low-income children.

Benjamin Boer, the deputy director of Advance Illinois, a nonpartisan education advocacy group, agreed that more funding is required to close the gap. “It’s a much better formula, but it will be a fight for adequate funding each year, and that is always difficult,” Boer said.

Seventy-five million dollars for tax-credit vouchers was added to the bill at the last minute to make it more palatable for Republican lawmakers, making Illinois the 18th state to offer tax-credit vouchers for private schools.

“That was not something we were interested in,” Boer said. “It was part of a political compromise.”

Hilgendorf of the Chicago Teachers Union said the 2018 start date for the voucher program bought opponents some time to stop it. “There will be legislative, legal and political efforts to repeal it,” he said. “It’s definitely not a done deal.”

Sasha Pudelski, the assistant director for policy and advocacy for AASA, the School Superintendents Association, said vouchers posed a long-term threat to state funding for public schools.

“It’s really about subsidizing children who are already in private schools,” she said. “Can we financially support two school systems?”