Illinois school administrators are counting up their reserve funds to see how long they would be able to keep their doors open in the case that the state doesn’t distribute its share of education dollars by July 1.
It’s not a far-fetched scenario. As of last week, the state still hadn’t come up with an overall budget for the current, 2016 fiscal year, or for the coming 2017 fiscal year.
While Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner approved K-12 education spending in a separate budget measure in June, colleges and several human services agencies have been forced to tap their savings accounts and take out emergency loans to continue operating.
Now the state’s school districts fear they could face a similar fate if the state’s Democratic-controlled legislature and Rauner don’t agree on a spending plan by July 1.
As of last week, legislators were debating two very different proposals—one by the Rauner and another by Democratic Sens. Andy Manar and Senate President John Cullerton—that would fundamentally change how the state distributes its education dollars. Rauner has proposed, for the first time in seven years, to fully fund Illinois’ portion of education costs under the state’s funding formula by adding $120 million to its education spending. The state is spending $7 billion on K-12 in the current fiscal year.
While the state’s constitution requires the state’s funding formula to provide districts with $6,119 per student, the state has not contributed its total share in recent years because of a $111 billion public employee pension debt, among other things. That’s resulted in widespread funding cuts to districts across the state.
“We must make the education of our children our top priority,” Rauner said during a budget address in February in which he urged legislators to send a K-12 budget proposal to his desk. While admitting that the funding formula needs to be changed, he said past attempts have pitted districts against one another. “The one thing I won’t back down on—the one thing that’s non-negotiable for me—is increasing education funding.”
Rauner’s plan would result in some districts, including Chicago and surrounding suburbs, losing money. Rauner has said those district would lose funds because they are losing students. But Chicago officials blame an already-flawed formula that they say is too dependent on local property taxes and say that Rauner’s plan will only exacerbate disparities among districts.
That aspect of his plan has sparked large-scale protests by Chicago teachers and parents who have described the potential cuts as detrimental to a district already undergoing its own budget cuts
“Bruce Rauner is a liar,” Karen Lewis, the president of Chicago’s teachers’ union, said during a protest last month, rejecting the governor’s argument that all districts would benefit from his budget in the long run. “And, you know, I’ve been reading in the news lately all about these ISIS recruits popping up all over the place—has Homeland Security checked this man out yet? Because the things he’s doing look like acts of terror on poor and working-class people.”
That comment drew a harsh condemnation from Rauner’s office.
Cullerton and Manar have proposed replacing the state’s 19-year-old school funding formula with one that would increase state support to the state’s neediest school districts. Chicago, under that plan, would receive close to $300 million, according to some estimates.
The state’s funding formula is heavily reliant on property taxes, an issue that school officials for years have complained about. Districts with low property values, especially rural ones downstate, have suffered disproportionately, according to education advocacy organizations.
“Our [existing] formula is almost punitive to children who live in poverty today,” Manar said during a press conference last month where he unveiled his proposal.
Chicago, under that plan, would receive close to $175 million more, according to an analysis by the state’s board of education released last week that sparked widespread criticism of the plan from the state’s Republicans. “The data shows what many of us have feared: that [Manar’s] legislation has become a vehicle for a major bailout of the bankrupt Chicago school system, while wildly shifting funding around suburban communities, and creating a detrimental impact on downstate schools,” said Republican state Sen. Jason Barickman.
Manar said the study was flawed and politically motivated.
Several Democratic legislators have said they will hold up K-12 spending this year until the state’s funding formula is changed.
“We’re going to move forward with or without the governor,” Manar said.
Rauner said last month that he thinks they’ll come up with a solution by July 1.
Superintendents, meanwhile, aren’t so confident.
“A year ago, I would’ve said no, [a state shutdown] could never happen,” said John Asplund, the superintendent of Farmington school district, in the western part of the state. “But, now, I don’t know. We’ve kept a healthy fund balance reserve because the state has been so unpredictable. I’d rather have a large rainy day fund balance because it keeps raining here.”
The Associated Press contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the May 11, 2016 edition of Education Week as Education Funding a Key Factor in Illinois Budget Showdown