Political News

Illinois Senate to take up school funding overhaul

Posted August 29

— The Illinois Senate is expected to take up a school funding overhaul Tuesday that supporters have hailed as "historic," saying it will increase aid to all of the state's more than 800 districts and eliminate disparities between rich and poor schools.

The Illinois House approved the measure Monday, and Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner has said he'll sign the bill quickly to get money to districts starting a new school year.

Lawmakers have tried unsuccessfully for years to replace a system for funding education that's widely considered the most inequitable in the country. This year's state budget required for the first time that the formula be changed, and provided an additional $350 million to help pay for it.

No money could go to districts, however, until a new plan is in place. Although school officials have said they will be able to open classrooms for the new school year, many districts have worried they would run out of money if a plan wasn't approved soon.

The legislation before the Senate on Tuesday also provides $75 million in tax credits for people who contributed to private school scholarships.

Teacher unions and some school officials oppose the credits, saying taxpayer money shouldn't be used to fund private schools. They fear the scholarships — which would benefit a maximum of 6,000 students — will reduce enrollment at public schools, some of which are struggling to maintain enough students to stay open.

"Only time will tell how significant an impact it might have," said Brent Clark, executive director of the Illinois Association of School Administrators.

The tax credit program will expire after five years if lawmakers don't extend it. The credits would be worth 75 percent of a taxpayer's annual contributions to a scholarship fund, with a maximum credit of $1 million annually. The money may be donated to a specific school but not to a specific student.

Students receiving the scholarships must have a household income of less than 300 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $73,000 annually for a family of four.

Several lawmakers initially voted "no" on the measure Monday because of the tax credits. After it failed in the House, lawmakers attempted to override changes Rauner made to a different funding bill that teacher unions preferred. That effort also was unsuccessful.

With no other plans available to get money to schools quickly, legislators tried again to pass the newer plan. This time, several lawmakers who initially opposed it voted yes.

Under Illinois' current system, districts must rely heavily on property taxes to fund schools. That's created large differences in per-student funding, with some wealthier districts spending four times more per student than districts with less property tax wealth.

Under the new plan, the state will determine how much money each district needs to adequately educate its students, taking into consideration the number who live in poverty or who need special education services. The state then looks at how much money the district is able to generate from property taxes, and directs state aid first to districts that need the most money to reach their per-student spending target.

The legislation also provides money to help Chicago Public Schools make payments to its teacher pension funds, as Illinois does for other districts, and gives districts relief from some state mandates, such as allowing them to offer fewer days of physical education each week.

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Associated Press writer Sophia Tareen in Chicago contributed to this report.

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Follow Sara Burnett on Twitter at https://twitter.com/sara_burnett. Sign up for the AP's weekly newsletter showcasing our best reporting from the Midwest and Texas at http://apne.ws/2u1RMfv .

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