My goodness but there was some incredibly compelling testimony at the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) meeting yesterday in support of ending regressive proration. I went to testify along with a few dozen members of the Funding IL’s Future coalition. I’ve been pretty focused on this issue for the last couple of years, but somehow, these speakers really brought it to life today way more than numbers on a page.
Kris Reichmann and her son Ethan, who attends school in Oak Park, told a tale of two districts, compared Oak Park’s well-resourced environment with the struggling South Beloit, where she works. In South Beloit, with a 63% low-income student population, operation spending per pupil is $10,210 – compared to Oak Park, where they spend $19,157 per pupil and have a low-income student population of 21%. East Aurora put their total hit under proration in context: they could have hired 90 teachers or bought a laptop for every student. Instead, they were victims of the regressive funding cuts that we’ve come to call “proration,” a practice that takes the most from the students who can least afford it.
Proration has become the norm over the last five years. It happens when the General Assembly doesn’t appropriate enough money to fully fund the “Foundation Level.” That leaves ISBE having to run the formula as usual – but somehow close a gap. It would take about $560 million to close the gap altogether. ISBE has chosen to prorate all school districts at 87% of their total claim. The effect this has is that the districts with high property wealth that don’t rely much on General State Aid come out of it relatively unscathed (the richest lose $30 per pupil), but the poorest districts are devastated (the poorest lose over $1,000 per pupil). We recommend that if there isn’t enough money to fully fund the Foundation Level, ISBE move to a per pupil cut across the board, in order to provide shared sacrifice that doesn’t disproportionately hurt the student who can least afford it.
So here’s the problem*: We were hopeful that ISBE would address the proration issue at today’s meeting. But when the agenda packet came out, it wasn’t on there. The General Assembly passed a budget, but didn’t officially transmit it to the Governor’s Office until yesterday. And the Governor is expected to veto the bill because it relies on finding another $3 billion in revenue. So ISBE’s main concern – which we share – is that without a budget in place by August 10, schools won’t receive their first General State Aid payment at all. So forget rich or poor, high-spenders and low-spenders, downstate or suburban – they’re worried about all of them not opening their doors. Without a budget in front of them to act on, ISBE decided not to act on the proration issue. (Theoretically, the legislature could fully fund General State Aid and make the proration conversation moot… but even the greatest optimists among us don’t think there’s a chance of that. And even if they come up with the $560 million in funding for that, it doesn’t hurt to have a contingency plan in place.)
The thoughtful and compassionate comments from a majority of board members, who devoted a lot of time to this conversation today, even without a spot on the agenda, give me some hope that this board will really commit to moving in a new direction. We can’t keep kicking the proration can down the road to wait for a bigger fix or more money. Now on year five of proration, we know what the impact is and we know what’s at stake. We can’t keep doing this to our most vulnerable kids.
* Obviously, I’m just referring to today’s short-term problem here. The problem, of course, is that Illinois has the single most regressive education funding system in the country, which is compounded by the state’s inadequate investment in education overall, which has been exacerbated by the income tax rate dropping this year. And then there’s the middle-term problem of ISBE’s current proration system, which costs the richest districts about $30 per student and the poorest over $1,000 per pupil.