New Illinois Law Swells Funding For State's Poorer School Districts

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Hounded by public pressure, the Illinois House used a one-day special session last week to pass a broad school reform bill that raises spending on poor students and amends teacher-licensing rules.

For the first time in state history, the law sets a minimum per-pupil spending level, which will be $4,100 this school year. That rises to $4,425 in 2001. Previously, some districts spent as little as $3,100 per pupil.

The bill raises K-12 state aid by $120 million over the $4.5 billion fiscal 1998 education budget passed earlier this year.

The new budget also includes $1.5 billion for future school construction matching grants--the state's first comprehensive building program in 20 years.

New revenue will come from a combination of taxes on cigarettes, riverboat gambling, and telephone services. New fees will also come from penalties charged to late taxpayers.

The Democrat-controlled House approved the package Dec. 2 on an 83-31 vote.

The House rejected the same bill in November after it was passed by the Republican Senate. ("Ill. Lawmakers Get One More Try To Pass School Funding Reforms," Nov. 26, 1997.)

Gov. Jim Edgar, a Republican, signed the bill Dec. 4 at DePriest Elementary School in Chicago. "The historic legislation finally gives all Illinois schoolchildren what they richly deserve, the guarantee of a quality education, no matter where they live," he said in a statement.

Why did 17 Democrats change their votes to pass the bill? Credit Mr. Edgar for calling the special session, and public weariness over the state's prolonged school funding debate.

"As we move toward the March primaries, the people who ran on education reform were saying: 'We didn't do it. What's going to happen to us?'" said Deanna Sullivan, the government-relations director for the Illinois Association of School Boards. "So they returned and passed the bill."

More Provisions

But not everybody was pleased with the final bill. School groups had rallied behind a plan last spring that sought to shift the bulk of school funding away from property taxes to a statewide income tax. While that bill passed in the House, it failed to win Senate support.

"This [new] bill uses very unstable and unpredictable sources of revenue," said Gail Purkey, the spokeswoman for the Illinois Federation of Teachers, the state affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. "It doesn't end the reliance on property taxes."

In related provisions, the law:

  • Makes it easier for school districts to contract for private noninstructional services.
  • Doubles the time required for teacher tenure from two to four years.
  • Makes it easier for adults with experience outside of education to get certified to teach.
  • Requires districts to establish no-pass/no-play policies for student participation in extracurricular activities.

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