EDITORIALS

Don’t let politics kill Illinois’ school funding debate

Staff Writer
Chillicothe Times-Bulletin

Anyone who thought Senate Bill 16, the school funding reform bill, was going to sail through the Illinois House without a fight underestimated the fervor bound to be stirred by the economic, regional and political implications of such an overhaul.

As for the positive and long-overdue educational implications of making school funding more equitable statewide, those don’t seem to hold quite the same level of importance for lawmakers, especially during election season.

In short, it should surprise no one that education funding reform is turning into a political football this fall after passing 32-19 in the Senate during the spring.

Recently, Republicans in the House heightened their saber-rattling over the bill, concerned that it will whisk money from the suburban Chicago schools they represent.

They described Senate Bill 16, which is being shepherded by Democratic Sen. Andy Manar from Bunker Hill, as “piecemeal reallocation” of school funding that will cause hundreds of districts “deep budget reductions and financial uncertainty.”

Two-fifths of the GOP caucus in the House support a resolution sponsored by Rep. Ron Sandack of suburban Downers Grove that opposes the bill.

School superintendents are up in arms as well.

“This proposed law would, in essence, pull the rug out from under suburban taxpayers and would significantly reduce the state funding to these high-achieving schools. SB16 would pull state funding away from schools that are successful,” is the message to parents from administrators posted on the website for the St. Charles school district between Aurora and Elgin in suburban Chicago.

In the Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200, Superintendent Jeff Schuler, like other suburban superintendents, is encouraging parents to ask their lawmakers to oppose the reform measure.

“If SB16 passes, education in our district will change drastically and I want to ensure students in District 200 receive the same quality education I expect for my children, Lucas and Ella,” Schuler wrote.

The superintendents’ concerns can’t be dismissed, and Republican lawmakers should be part of the conversation.

No one wants to see their school district lose money.

But a few important points are in order here.

Manar carefully and thoughtfully has worked on a school funding reform plan for months, and what he’s come up with certainly is not “piecemeal reallocation” of financial resources.

He has gone out of his way to be transparent and up front about what the bill — which has bipartisan support from all parts of the state — does and does not do.

SB16 phases in reductions to state aid over four years so that school districts that stand to lose money aren’t confronted with dire losses all at once.

It prioritizes resources where there is greater student need using a weighted formula, and it embraces the concept of equity — making sure students in school districts throughout the state have access to the same resources.

Manar has listened to other stakeholders about their concerns and has been open to changes to the bill, while also doing his best to center the conversation on equity, not any number of other distractions that continue to be thrown into the mix, such as state budget relief.

Yes, under the plan students in poorer school districts could gain resources, and those in wealthier districts could lose resources — significant resources, in some cases.

But those resources currently are not being distributed equitably throughout the state.

As it stands, Illinois’ funding structure, last changed in 1997, is antiquated and unfair. There will be pain for some districts if Senate Bill 16 becomes law — very much like the pain felt now in districts that can’t afford such basic educational needs as up-to-date textbooks, Internet access or basic enrichment programs because of funding disparities.

SB16 also demands greater transparency from school districts about how they’re spending money at the school level — something taxpayers have wanted for years.

Equity, fairness and transparency — these are things Illinoisans have lamented about the state’s method of funding schools for decades, but few have been willing to do the heavy lifting that comes with proposing an overhaul. Manar and other lawmakers are trying to do something about it.

Let’s have a fair, thoughtful, rhetoric-free debate about Senate Bill 16, and keep in mind the conversation should be about a quality education for all Illinois children, not squabbling over politics and winners and losers.

Do what’s right for all public schools.

—GateHouse News Service