Thursday, August 31, 2017
Illinois has long been one of the worst offenders in terms of school funding fairness. It is one of the wealthier states in the nation, yet the effort it exerts to fund education has been among the worst. School funding fairness reports have regularly ranked its effort as a D or low C in comparison to other states. The most troubling feature of Illinois school funding, however, has been how unfairly it distributes the meager school funds that it actually generates.
In the 2010 funding fairness report, Illinois ranked 48th in the nation in terms of funding levels in districts serving moderate numbers of low-income students compared to those with almost no low-income students. Districts serving moderate numbers of low-income students received 22% less funding per student than districts with few to no low-income students. The 2017 report showed the same problem. Illinois ranked 47th on this metric and the funding gap had grown to 23%.
The blame for this gap has rested squarely at the feet of the state legislature, which has chosen to place extraordinarily high burdens on local school districts to fund education themselves. With little state support, this districts are left to sink or swim on their own. Too many tread water or simply sink.
The irony is that Illinois' state constitution includes one of the strong education guarantees in the nation. Article X of the state constitution provides:
A fundamental goal of the People of the State is the educational development of all persons to the limits of their capacities.
The State shall provide for an efficient system of high quality public educational institutions and service.
I will refrain from an exegesis of this clause and its history, but would emphasis that it has two explicit phrases that are missing from most other state constitutions: "fundamental" and "high quality." The crucial question under state and federal constitutional law has been whether education is a fundamental right. Illinois states it as a fundamental goal, which adds a distinction, but the all-important word fundamental is there.
The other crucial question in state courts has been whether the state constitution can be interpreted as some sort of quality mandate and, if so, what is that mandate. Illinois' constitutional language leaves no doubt. The word "shall" indicates a mandate and "high quality" directly answers the other question.
Nonetheless, the Illinois courts have done nothing to hold the state accountable for complying with these constitutional mandates. Unlike the majority of other state court systems, Illinois courts have said school funding raises a political question and, thus, is left to the discretion of the legislature. Aggrieved citizens' only recourse, said the Illinois Supreme Court, is the ballot box. Well, it has taken decades, but the politics in Illinois have finally shifted.
On Tuesday, the state Senate passed a new school funding formula. The bill amended and strengthened the house version and the governor has said he will sign it. According to reports, it will drive far more funds toward needy districts and place less reliance on local property tax. This new formula is said to be "evidence based," meaning that it responds to student and district need rather than geographic politics.
It sounds like the state is about to take a major step forward, but I will wait for someone like Bruce Baker to run the numbers and confirm it. I also cannot help but note that the bill included new money for tax credits for private school, otherwise know as neo-vouchers. I did not follow the politics on this, but imagine the deal was held hostage by an ideological stance on vouchers.