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Published in Print: September 18, 2002, as Illinois Schools Depend Too Much On Property Tax, Task Force Says

Illinois Schools Depend Too Much On Property Tax, Task Force Says

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An independent board has recommended big changes in the way Illinois pays for public education, reiterating decades of complaints about the stark disparity between financial support for the state's richest and poorest schools.

The Education Funding Advisory Board, a task force that reports to the governor, called in an August report for the state to overhaul its tax structure to become less reliant on property taxes.

"The education opportunities in Illinois right now depend entirely on where you live," said Robert Leininger, the chairman of the advisory board and a former Illinois state superintendent of education. "We have a lot of 'haves' and 'have- nots.' "

The task force made the oft-repeated but politically unpopular recommendation that the state chip in a much bigger chunk of revenue to schools. The first step would be to slash local property taxes for education by 25 percent to 50 percent, and replace that money dollar for dollar with direct state funding, the panel concluded. Illinois property owners currently pay $9 billion a year in property taxes for education.

The lost revenue would be covered through higher income tax rates and to a lesser extent, closing tax loopholes, among other changes, according to the panel. It also called for incentives to encourage school districts to consolidate, which would help ensure that state money was distributed more fairly.

Illinois also should raise average per-pupil spending, now $4,560, to between $5,665 and $6,680, said the board, which is made up of business leaders as well as state and local school officials.

But support for the plan among top elected officials, wary of raising income taxes, seems slim. The major-party candidates for governor, Democratic U.S. Rep. Rod R. Blagojevich and Republican Attorney General Jim Ryan, both told the Chicago Tribune recently that while they might support incremental shifts in how schools are funded, they could not back the advisory board's call for tax hikes.

No Good Time

"It's been proposed and defeated, time and time again," Jim Tobin, the president of National Taxpayers United of Illinois, a watchdog group in Chicago, said of efforts to raise income taxes. He is also the Libertarian candidate for lieutenant governor.

"This proposal is actually worse than any of the ones before," Mr. Tobin said.

Mr. Leininger said he had heard criticism that the report was released so close to this fall's elections. But he said he believed tax changes could be made slowly, phased in over several years, if state leaders would agree to a more gradual approach.

"They say, 'This isn't the time for a tax hike,'" Mr. Leininger said. "Well, when the hell is the time for a tax hike?"

For years, critics have noted that relative to many other states, Illinois relies more heavily on local property taxes to pay for schools. As a result, schools in poverty-stricken areas and cities receive less revenue overall than those in wealthier suburban areas, where tax dollars are as plentiful as minivans.

A study released last month found that out of 47 states surveyed, Illinois had the second-largest gap in per-pupil spending between its richest and poorest school districts. That disparity per pupil is $2,060, according to the report by the Education Trust, a nonpartisan organization in Washington that advocates efforts to raise the achievement levels of minority and needy students.

Vol. 22, Issue 3, Page 18

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