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Bills To Close Funding Gap Fall by Wayside in Ill.

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As it turns out, 1996 will not be remembered as the year Illinois closed its gaping disparity in school funding. But talk of a major change will generate an additional $291 million for the 1996-97 school year.

The budget approved late last month by state lawmakers features $52.5 million for block grants that will be divided among all school districts based on enrollment. The grants can be used for almost anything, except teacher raises.

Another $51.3 million will be added to the standard school-aid formula, which will help raise spending in low-wealth districts.

"This is a budget that can really help us move our educational-improvement agenda forward," said Joseph A. Spagnolo, the state superintendent of schools.

The total elementary and secondary education budget for fiscal 1997 will climb to $4.1 billion.

"This is nice, and welcomed, but the fact remains that it didn't help disadvantaged schools offer the same programs as advantaged schools," said George King, the spokesman for the Illinois Education Association.

Because of disparities in local wealth and a heavy reliance on property taxes, Illinois has one of the broadest gaps in per-pupil funding: Spending ranges from about $3,000 to $15,000 a student.

Addressing that chasm was the goal of two proposals earlier in the session that eventually pushed the legislature to its final compromise.

In March, Republican Gov. Jim Edgar unveiled a bold, but politically unpopular, election-year plan to raise taxes by $1.9 billion. The tax hike would have essentially shifted $1.5 billion in local property taxes to the state. The other $400 million would have helped raise per-pupil funding statewide to at least $4,225. (See Education Week, April 24, 1996.)

Mr. Edgar's plan also called for a constitutional amendment to boost the share of education costs now paid by the state from about one-third to half.

The eventual compromise grew from a counteroffer by House Speaker Lee A. Daniels, a Republican, who proposed $500 million in new school spending without raising taxes. That plan, called "Quality First," passed in the House but died in the Senate, in part because it would have required cuts in other programs.

The gop-controlled legislature, feeling pressure to increase school spending, created a special committee to study the issue. The result of the panel's efforts was the $291 million increase, which Mr. Edgar is expected to approve.

In addition to the block-grant funds, the final package includes $15 million for new alternative schools and an additional $15 million for technology grants.

Local Reactions

School district officials were torn between being pleased with the windfall and being disappointed at losing another year in the war to equalize per-pupil expenditures.

They hope that school-finance reform, or even Mr. Edgar's plan, will be revisited next year.

"We're always pleased if there is more money put back into education," said Ron Paquette, the superintendent of the 230-student Hampton school district outside Moline. "But the governor's proposal would have helped level the playing field. We were sorry to see that dropped out."

Mr. Paquette's district anticipates an additional $40,000 in state funds to hire a teacher, helping reduce class sizes in the 5th and 6th grades. Under the governor's proposal, Hampton would have received about $100,000.

"My concern is that flat grants will make inequity worse," said Bob C. Hill, the superintendent of the 15,000-student Springfield district.

Mr. Hill's district would receive an extra $1.9 million from the new funds, compared with about $4 million under Mr. Edgar's plan. The superintendent said the new money would shore up sagging reserves, add staff positions, and restore cut programs.

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