Editorial: Time for legislators to deliver new state education funding formula
State Rep. Sam Yingling's recent visit to a bilingual class in the Round Lake Early Education Center provided a great photo op and some nice stats. One hopes it will also yield some movement toward balancing Illinois' deeply inequitable approach to school funding.
Yingling, a Grayslake Democrat, observed three classes and talked to teachers and a high-ranking administrator about funding of low-income systems like Round Lake Unit District 116. Other legislators would do well to visit cash-strapped classrooms in Elgin, Waukegan, West Chicago and elsewhere for a similar lesson -- and it would be particularly valuable if some of those lawmakers hailed from regions whose affluent schools have a healthy property tax base to rely on. They would get a fuller picture of what needs to be done.
This is hardly a new issue, of course. For decades, proposals have come and gone that seek to provide a more-equitable system for funding schools around the state. But as with so much else in our deeply divided state, the search for a solution to this complex problem has been overwhelmed by regional and demographic politics.
In the midst of what could be -- and ought to be -- a major overhaul of the state's entire spending structure, it's time to get off the schneid on school funding and craft legislation to finally provide a workable formula that ensures an equal education to children in every district.
As District 116 shows, this is no longer merely a downstate or inner city problem. Many suburban school districts are on the lengthy and growing list of have-nots in state education funding.
Yingling was moved to talk to District 116 officials after reading an op-ed by Round Lake teacher Kali Skiles on the Daily Herald's Opinion page last February. Skiles detailed the inequities created by the state's current education funding formula that relies heavily on property taxes.
Under this approach, communities with higher property values generate more school funds and resources, while areas on the other end of the property value spectrum struggle to provide schools with the basics -- like District 116, which serves primarily Hispanic students and where 52 percent of the families are considered low-income. The state funding formula is supposed to help balance things out, but it's not working -- neither for schools in property-rich suburbs that get very little state aid nor for troubled institutions in low-income settings with few options beyond state aid.
"Low-income districts like those in Round Lake receive only 81 cents for every dollar available to non-low-income students. Out of all 50 states, Illinois has the largest funding gap between low income and non-low-income students," Skiles wrote.
An Illinois State Board of Education spreadsheet shows District 116's overall funding is considered 61 percent adequate. By comparison, Oak Grove Elementary District 68 in Green Oaks is at 148 percent and Antioch-based Grass Lake Elementary District 36 is at 218 percent, according to the document.
School leaders and politicians agree the education funding formula is broken in Illinois. For a vivid picture of how that is affecting students, they can spend some time in classrooms in Round Lake and elsewhere. Better yet, they can get serious in Springfield about building a school-funding fix into the broader solution to Illinois' budget crisis.