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Report Expected To Stir Up Ill. School-Finance Debate

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A task force studying inequities in the funding of Illinois schools is expected next month to release a set of politically explosive recommendations that observers say are sure to escalate the finance-reform debate in a state with one of the largest gaps between wealthy and poor school districts in the nation.

The dramatic spending differences in the Prairie State--where per-pupil expenditures in 1989-90 ranged from $2,253 to $14,316--means that the stakes are unusually high for districts at both ends of the spectrum.

Closing the wide gulf would require a substantial and costly policy shift--at an estimated cost of $2 billion in new state funds--by lawmakers, who already face a lawsuit by 72 of the state's poorest districts.

The state's Task Force on School Finance has been looking for a way out of the legal and political minefield for 18 months. After periods of inaction and disagreement, the panel plans to deliver its final report in May.

The panel's legislative proposals, which include a plan to "recapture'' local property-tax revenues from some of the state's wealthiest districts, probably will not be able to win a spot on the legislature's crowded agenda until 1993. But backers hope lawmakers and state voters this year will consider and approve a constitutional amendment strengthening the state's legal commitment to ensuring a fair system of education for all children.

Although the recommendations continue to draw opposition as either too timid or too bold, task-force leaders said that after months of debate, it is time to take the issue to a wider audience.

"It has been tedious,'' said Senator Arthur L. Berman, the co-chairman of the task force. "But we've discussed issues that I would say have rarely, if ever, been discussed candidly in a public forum. This probably should have been done 10 years ago.''

Guaranteeing 'Adequacy'

A key feature of the panel's final report would move away from its earlier goal of an equity standard that would ensure that no district spent more than one-and-a-half times as much per student as the poorest district.

Instead, the task force plans to propose an "adequacy'' target that would boost low-spending districts up to the level needed to provide a good basic education. The most recent draft calls on the state to guarantee $4,300 per student, with additional amounts based on regional cost differences.

The package also tentatively includes a limit on the tax revenue received by the wealthiest 1 percent of districts. Officials estimate that the state would collect $71 million in local property taxes above the cap and redistribute the funds to poor areas.

The plan also would set a minimum tax rate required to receive state aid, which would increase the tax burden for wealthy districts, and would restructure the tax rates districts are allowed to levy.

The panel has not yet put a price tag on its plan, but officials expect about $2 billion in new state funding would be required. The state income tax is the most likely source of the new funds, officials added.

The proposed constitutional amendment, which is still being written, would strengthen language in the 1970 state constitution that the courts have held does not set a firm standard for school funding.

"Nothing requires the state constitutionally to do much, and, therefore, equity and adequacy, over a period of time, have suffered from the growing demands on the state budget and reliance on local property taxes,'' Senator Berman said. He added that a change is needed "to place the proper responsibility on the state for adequate school funding.''

Gene Hoffman, a former legislator and the co-chairman of the task force, said a vote this year on the constitutional change would provide an early gauge of the depth of lawmakers' interest in the issue. The amendment would have to win three-fifths majorities in both chambers before being put before voters in November.

"We need to see if there's a commitment on the part of the legislature to put that out there and then go to the people to change the education article,'' he said. "If that's adopted, that then becomes the impetus for the legislature to give serious consideration to the recommendations of the task force.''

'Halfway Measures'

School-finance experts called the task force's changes substantial and said the five-year plan would aid poor districts, even if it does not create a strictly level playing field.

"There will be disagreement on whatever they do,'' said G. Alan Hickrod, the director of the Center for the Study of Educational Finance at Illinois State University. "You're talking about relative variance. The disparity will be diminished, but not eliminated. That's reasonable.''

Still, early responses suggest that the panel's recommendations face an uphill fight.

"The task force is more interested in property-tax relief than it is in equity,'' argued G. Alfred Hess Jr., the executive director of the Chicago Panel on Public School Policy and Finance, a coalition of civic groups. "There are some good things to point to, but it is difficult to get excited about halfway measures.''

Wealthy districts, on the other hand, are echoing complaints by similar districts in other states by asking why they should have to suffer so that low-wealth districts can improve.

The task force only narrowly approved the recapture provision, on a 14-to-12 vote, and the panel's leaders said it is quite possible that the plank will not make the final report.

"It's going to be difficult to keep that in the program because it is obvious there is no consensus on that issue, and we're only looking at the top 1 percent,'' said Mr. Hoffman. "If that's going to be an albatross around the program's neck, there's no sense losing a $2-billion bill over something like that.''

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