Friday, October 21, 2016

Parallel paths: Groups work towards school funding reform

Ben Schwarm
IASB Deputy Executive Director Ben Schwarm comments on the efforts towards reforming Illinois school funding formula.

Separate groups looking into making changes to the state’s school funding formula seem to be moving on parallel paths to this point. Governor Bruce Rauner chose state Secretary of Education Beth Purvis to head up his Illinois School Funding Reform Commission. The Commission, comprised mostly of legislators, has been meeting every two weeks since August 3. The target for the Commission is to unveil its proposal in February.

Meanwhile, Senator Kimberly Lightford (D-Maywood) has established a group of education stakeholders and legislators who also are seeking to make changes to the current school funding formula. The senator would also like to have a new plan ready to roll out next year. Generally, the same participants attend the meetings of both groups.

Has there been progress?
To this point, much of what has been done is background information, reviewing prior research and comparing various funding models used across the country. The governor’s Commission has brought in experts from other states to consider those funding systems, experts on Illinois’ current funding system, and experts on the state property tax system. The Lightford group has focused more on the various education and reform organizations that have funding plan proposals or have conducted research in this area.

These steps are obviously necessary before moving forward with a plan, but it also makes for a very slow process (especially when having a fairly quick timeline). Sometime soon after the November election, the groups will need to put forth a proposal that they wish to pursue. The negotiating, crafting, and fine-tuning of any plan will likely take months after the first bill draft is printed and before any legislation is formally introduced.

Most everyone involved in the discussions has agreed that any new funding formula for schools must focus on distributing the scarce state resources to those school districts in the most need. What became evident over the last two years was that it will take additional funding to do this. Senator Andy Manar (D-Bunker Hill) sponsored bills to address the disparity in school district spending, but his plan was labeled as taking funding from some school districts and sending it to others. Having “winners and losers”  created an untenable situation for legislators.

The prospect of finding additional revenues  brings up the ongoing saga of trying to agree upon a state budget. Again, after the election, lawmakers have to seriously look at approving a budget for all of state government. Though the education budget approved last June covers the entire year, spending authority for the rest of the budget expires on December 31.

Involvement of school management
IASB, and its School Management Alliance partners (IASA, Illinois ASBO, and IPA), have been involved as participants and spectators. Multiple IASB staff members, including Executive Director Roger Eddy, have been in attendance of every Commission meeting in person and by phone. Before each meeting of the Commission, the governor’s office conducts a stakeholders meeting where all of the education organizations are briefed on what will happen at the meeting. The Illinois Association of School Administrators (IASA), the Illinois Association of School Business Officials (Illinois ASBO), and the Illinois Principals Association (IPA) have staff (including the executive directors) that also attend.Staff of the associations has been involved in all of the Lightford meetings as well.

Deeper involvement, too, has occurred on behalf of the Alliance as both panels have been extremely in interested in the Evidence-Based Funding Model presented in the Vision 20/20 platform. The executive directors of the Alliance organizations have been given opportunities to present the evidence-based plan at previous meetings. The general concept has been very well received by both groups, though participants are still getting through the details and nuances of the rather complex formula.

Where does this leave us?
Discussions will continue in the coming months. But with the year-long dialogue that has already taken place, and the involvement now of all four legislative caucuses and the governor’s office, the expectation has been raised that there will be legislation in the spring to comprehensively change the way we fund our public schools.