There’s an old saying about the wisdom of helping those who are also willing to help themselves. I couldn’t help but think of this saying recently as I reviewed details of the latest proposal to reform how we fund public schools in Illinois.
There’s no question that our current formula for funding schools is broken. It allows for huge disparities from one region to another in dollars that are available to spend on students. Some of that disparity is by chance (despite local efforts, there is simply not enough property wealth in the district to raise adequate property tax revenue for schools), but some is by choice (the property wealth is there, but local officials refuse to tap into it).
The new funding reform plan being discussed in Springfield (Senate Bill 231) is basically a funding shift, moving state dollars from districts that are better funded locally through property taxes to those with less local funding. On the surface that sounds fair, right? I have no problem with more state dollars going to help districts that are truly in need. The problem is that not all cash strapped districts are doing all they can to help themselves.
The most glaring example is Chicago Public Schools. There’s certainly no shortage of property wealth in the City of Chicago, but for decades city leaders have kept property taxes in the city artificially low, expecting taxpayers here in the suburbs and across the state to bail-out their schools with more state funding. A key component of Senate Bill 231 is an additional $205 million bailout of the Chicago teachers’ pension system.
By contrast, there are struggling school districts such as East Aurora and Waukegan that have done all they can to help themselves with local funding, but are still in desperate need of more help from the state.
Unfortunately, Senate Bill 231 doesn’t differentiate between districts that have exhausted their local resources and are truly in need from those that, despite other options, are simply looking for a state bailout.
Every student in Illinois deserves fair funding for their schools, but that fairness needs to start with responsible, local efforts. I’m glad that Senate Bill 231 has jump-started the education funding reform discussion again this spring, but it’s not the answer we’re looking for.