SPRINGFIELD — In what has become a perennial occurrence at the Capitol in recent years, Sen. Andy Manar is introducing legislation to overhaul the way Illinois funds public schools.
The Bunker Hill Democrat says the latest version, which he plans to file Wednesday, addresses criticisms leveled at previous iterations and accounts for public statements Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner has made about education funding.
Most notably, the bill would guarantee that no school district receives less state funding next school year than it did this year. This so-called “hold harmless” provision, a major sticking point for wealthier districts in the Chicago suburbs and elsewhere, would be phased out over four years.
The aim of Manar’s proposal is to channel more funding to districts that need it most, including those with large numbers of low-income students, students with disabilities and students learning English.
It is “intended to erase and correct what is undoubtedly the worst and most regressive system of funding public education” in the country, Manar said during a Statehouse news conference.
Under the current system, which relies heavily on local property taxes, some districts are able to spend as much as $30,000 per student while others struggle to spend $6,000, he said.
“We strongly feel … in the Senate Democratic caucus that this legislation is a statewide solution to a statewide problem,” Manar said.
To that end, he said, the bill would bring Chicago Public Schools into the same funding system as every other district and would have the state cover the employer portion of Chicago teachers’ pensions, something it currently does for the rest of the state.
“I don’t know how … anyone can credibly stand up and say that we should have a statewide system and at the same time ignore this glaring difference,” Manar said.
Guaranteeing level funding for next year would cost about $400 million, and picking up the tab for Chicago teachers’ pensions would cost roughly $200 million annually, he said. That’s on top of the approximately $13 billion the state already spends on elementary and secondary education.
The existing formula, created in 1997, establishes a “foundation level” that districts should spend per student, currently $6,119, and directs general state aid to help them achieve it. However, for the past several years, the Democratic-controlled General Assembly hasn’t appropriated enough money to fund the full amount.
Manar’s new formula would set funding levels on a district-by-district basis based on demographics and other factors rather than using one statewide figure.
“The challenges you see in Lake Forest are different than the challenges you see in Decatur,” Manar said. “But today our formula treats every district as if they have the same challenges.”
Manar and other Democrats, including Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, have said the state should fix the formula before putting any more money into the current system.
“If everyone agrees the system is broken, why would we wait to fix it?” Cullerton spokesman John Patterson said Tuesday.
That position has led Rauner and other Republicans to accuse Democrats of holding up school funding to secure a bail out for Chicago Public Schools.
Rauner has called on lawmakers to fully fund education for next year under the current formula before trying to overhaul the system.
“The simple fact is, changing the formula’s going to be hard,” Rauner said Tuesday before Manar’s news conference. “If it were easy, it would have been done already.
“What we can’t do is have a system where we pit school districts against each other. We’ve got to come up with a way to increase significantly state support for education and focus that money on the lower-income districts and the more rural districts that don’t have the resources that they deserve.”
Sen. Jason Barickman, R-Bloomington, has also been focused on education funding in recent years and has sponsored legislation that would convene a panel to create an “evidence-based adequacy and equity formula for the funding of all school districts.”
While Manar incorporated that idea and others into his new bill, he didn’t have discussions with Barickman prior to drafting the legislation.
“If his intention was to solicit the support of me and others who thus far have not supported his legislation, you’d think the approach would be to sit down with us and say, ‘Hey, I want your support. Here’s what I’m willing to do in terms of the legislation to earn your support,’ ” Barickman said.