Some days, the dysfunction of Springfield gives me a headache and a heart ache. But if you can get past the disheartening and devastating stalemate at the top and look at what “rank-and-file” legislators are working toward, you can see lots of also-frustrated individuals who are fighting to make smaller strides of bipartisan progress. That’s happening, as legislators are starting to undo an ill-conceived law passed years ago that treats our poorest schools like piggy banks.
This blog has three parts, with the hope of showing that when ordinary people get involved, good things can happen.
Part One: How Our Poorest Schools Are Treated Like Piggy Banks
When schools hire teachers with their state or local funds, they pay less than 1% of salary to TRS as their nominal pension contribution. But when schools hire a teacher using federal funds, they pay 39% of salary to TRS. This isn’t a nominal contribution, or the actual cost; this is the incredibly-high “unfunded liability rate.” Because federal funds are mostly Title I funds (earmarked for low-income students) and IDEA funds (intended for students with special needs), this essentially siphons money away from the most vulnerable kids in the state—and toward state debt. Next year, that figure increases to 45%! (1)
This disproportionately hits our neediest students and poorest schools. For example, Danville Public Schools has a low-income rate of 74% and spends $129 per pupil through this TRS federal funds surcharge. Sunset Ridge, one of the lowest-poverty districts in the state, spends just $4 per pupil for the TRS surcharge. This leaves school districts with two bad choices: spend their federal funds on certified teachers while sacrificing almost half of the funds, or spend the money on uncertified aides or instructional materials – which might not be the best instructional decision, but enables them to retain their funding. Either way, kids lose.
Part Two: “I’m Just a Bill, Yes I’m Only a Bill.”
Two state legislators, Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth and Sen. Steve Stadelman, have introduced separate bills to fix this mess: House Bill 656 and Senate Bill 195. Only one bill needs to successfully wind its way through the legislative process to become law. But that can be an unpredictable road, so this two-track approach is smart. It also shows commitment to righting this wrong in both chambers of the General Assembly.
For a bill to become a law, it must pass a committee hearing and then receive a favorable floor vote in one chamber, and then repeat that in the other chamber, and then be signed by the governor. If the Schoolhouse Rock song, "I'm Just a Bill," is playing in your head right now, you’ve got the right idea.
The good news is that both bills have passed their first committee. House Bill 656 just passed the House by a vote of 105-0 and will head to the Senate. But we’ve still got a long way to go before we’ve got a law.
Part Three: How Folks Are Standing Up
Legislators from across the state are stepping up as cosponsors. The bills have racked up an impressive array of co-sponsors from both parties and numerous regions across the state, from Rockford to Cairo. (2)
Superintendents and advocacy organizations are also standing up to fix the TRS surcharge, and editorial boards have studied the issue and are writing thoughtfully about it. Superintendent McNamara of Pleasant Hill School District has explained the TRS surcharge forces districts to choose between paying the surcharge while hiring a teacher, or buying books or other materials to avoid it. As he says, “In our world, there's no better way to affect academic success than through a teacher. People are more effective than things.”
Educate yourself about the TRS surcharge with this helpful fact sheet and our latest report on the TRS surcharge. But even after this positive movement in Springfield, these bills still have a long way to go before they become law. And our state still faces overwhelming big picture problems that leaders in Springfield must come together to fix. None of this work is done, not by a long shot. So, stay tuned and keep standing up.
P.S.: If you are looking for even more information on the TRS federal rate and how teacher pension funding adds to school funding inequities, give this NPR Illinois story a listen.
(1) Title I funding comes from the federal government and is intended to level the playing field for low-income and students with special needs. This issue does not impact Chicago since it is the only district in the state that pays its own teacher pension costs, a situation with its own inequities beyond the scope of this post.
(2) Reps. Jehan Gordon-Booth; Litesa E. Wallace, Joe Sosnowski; Stephanie A. Kifowit; Sheri Jesiel; Robert W. Pritchard; Linda Chapa LaVia; Margo McDermed; Marcus C. Evans, Jr.; William Davis; Laura Fine; Fred Crespo; Mark Batinick; Avery Bourne; Steven A. Andersson; Grant Wehrli; C.D. Davidsmeyer; Tom Demmer; Michael D. Unes; Carol Ammons; Brandon W. Phelps; Michael Halpin; Carol Sente; Jay Hoffman; Jerry Costello, II; Cynthia Soto; Lawrence Walsh, Jr.; and Elizabeth Hernandez.
Sens. Steve Stadelman; Melinda Bush; David Koehler; Neil Anderson; Napoleon Harris, III; Dave Syverson; Chris Nybo; Jennifer Bertino-Tarrant; Andy Manar; Linda Holmes; Toi W. Hutchinson; Emil Jones, III; Pamela J. Althoff; and Cristina Castro.