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Me too. Let me walk you through my journey to better understand this complicated topic, featuring a heavy dose of honesty, the Dunning-Kruger Effect, and a debt of gratitude to the many kind souls I’ve met along the ride who pour their hearts into literacy work every day.

This is the Dunning-Kruger Effect:

Early in my professional life, when I was a legislative staffer diving into lots of topics that were new to me, I remember having a revelation that the more I learned about a subject, the more I realized how much I still didn’t know. Over a decade later, I discovered that this phenomenon has a name: the Dunning-Kruger Effect! My journey to learn about literacy instruction is following this trajectory, from knowing nothing to progressing along the “slope of enlightenment.”

But let’s go back in time about two years. Lots of states have undertaken literacy policy work, but Illinois hasn’t made any big, splashy literacy reforms. Our literacy rates, like literacy rates nationally, are frighteningly low. (One-third of fourth graders don’t meet “basic” reading standards.) “Someone should do something about that,” I thought. But I’m not a practitioner and this is so deeply embedded in pedagogy. It was around this time that a friend of a friend connected me to a local teacher who was having similar thoughts from the opposite direction (i.e., “I know the practice, but I don’t know policy and advocacy.” Here she is, talking about reading instruction in a TedX Talk.)

There is clearly a problem here:

  1. One-third of fourth graders don’t meet “basic” reading standards. Two-thirds don’t meet “proficient” standards. The picture looks about like that whether you consider national or State assessments. Within that statistic, there are deep inequities. A strong majority of incarcerated adults and court-involved youth are struggling readers.
  2. Tutoring is a booming business, but it’s cost prohibitive for most students. If a family can afford it, they will shell out tens of thousands of dollars to get their kid the literacy instruction they need. It is a tremendous inequity.
  3. Lots of other states have taken action. Some are getting great results. Some don’t seem to be moving the needle. But policymakers in these states have said enough is enough and prioritized literacy on their policy agenda.

I went “down the rabbit hole.” First, I binged the Emily Hanford documentary series, a convenient entryway into the literacy conversation. I signed up to the “Science of Reading—What I Should Have Learned in College” national and Illinois Facebook pages. I studied findings of the 2000 National Reading Panel report, and the 2006 National Literacy Panel Report for Language Minority Children and Youth. My podcast queue is heavily literacy-focused, as are most of the personal conversations with whomever I cross paths.

Around the same time as my immersion in the world of literacy, the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus was hard at work negotiating several reform pillars, including education, under the leadership of State Sen. Kimberly Lightford (D—Maywood). Rep. Rita Mayfield (D—Waukegan) had filed an early literacy bill for years, and she was committed to seeing it through. It was in the ILBC bill at one point, but it came out so that it could be worked on further. After that, we started networking more, finding lots of committed parents and advocates, introducing folks to each other, and jointly establishing the Illinois Early Literacy Coalition.

At this point in my journey, here were my top three takeaways:

  1. Reading is not natural. It literally re-wires our brains as we make connections between the sounds in language, to the letters on a page, to meaning of the text. Some children make the inferences they need to figure it out no matter how they are taught, but most need direct, explicit instruction to “crack the code.”
  2. Phonemic awareness gets shortchanged, and phonics is often added as a side dish that isn’t well integrated with the rest of the lesson. The five pillars of reading are phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary development, and comprehension.
  3. Emerging readers should decode words while reading books with phonics patterns they have learned, rather than being encouraged to figure out the words from looking at pictures or memorizing repetitive text.

I was watching my then-kindergartener go through remote schooling, where his phenomenal teachers delivered instruction from a poorly rated curriculum that “cues” students to look at the pictures in their books when they come to an unknown word. (With the type of books they use, it’s really the only option, since most kindergarteners haven’t learned the phonics patterns to decode “scientist,” or “elephant,” or “porcupine.” These books typically feature a repetitive text pattern on every page, like “I went to the playground and played on the [insert equipment here],” and a picture that hints at that type of playground equipment. More advanced versions might have something different on the last page, like “I love going to the playground.”) I noticed his struggle to remember letters and their sounds, and his adorable language quirks, like saying “tremote” instead of remote, “pagic” instead of package, and “garjib” instead of garbage. This was the first time it occurred to me: he is one of the kids for whom explicit and systematic phonics and phonemic awareness instruction will be absolutely critical.

When I was figuratively at the top of the first peak (“Mt. Stupid”), I think my biggest misconception was that there are two clearcut “sides” to this debate. A term of the 1990s, the “Reading Wars” still seemed to be going strong – with one segment of the population advocating for structured literacy and the other for balanced literacy. (As it turns out, neither is a silver bullet, both can be interpreted in multiple ways, and both actually support a lot of the same principles.) So came my fall from Mt. Stupid into the Valley of Despair.

I thought, “Explicit, systematic phonics instruction is everything.” It’s super important, but… Here’s what I oversimplified:

  1. It’s not more important than other elements (fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension), and there are more elements to throw into the mix, like oral language development and writing.
  2. Different students will need different dosages of instruction of these elements. Some might not need much phonics, others will need many repetitions of the phonics patterns they learn, and all should receive the instruction that meets their needs. Students learning English will need a greater focus on oral language development, while students with dyslexia will need a heavy focus on phonemic awareness and phonics.
  3. Phonics is not an end destination. It is like training wheels. The goal is for word recognition to become so automatic that all of a reader’s attention can be focused on comprehension and analysis.
  4. Integration of the elements is important, so kids learn phonics patterns, have opportunities to re-integrate those skill into meaningful content, and apply those phonics skills when they read.
  5. Decoding should be the first step to tackling unknown words, but looking at context clues after word identification can support comprehension. The “three-cueing” approach suggests that multiple, equally good strategies can help students read an unknown word. (What word would make sense? Does it sound right? Does it look right?) Relying on pictures and context as a primary way to identify a word defies what we know about how the brain learns to read. But these clues can be helpful to understand at the word level (vocabulary) and at the text level (comprehension).

Springfield is lucky to have a Children’s Dyslexia Center that provides an annual, free structured literacy training derived from Orton-Gillingham. I signed up. It’s not a small commitment; this will mean tutoring 100 hours over the year in addition to the classes and homework. But this issue has become so professionally and personally relevant, it makes absolute sense for me carve out the time for this. (I’m pretty close! I’ve got about 10 hours to go.)

People who have dedicated their lives to studying how children learn to read are still somewhere on that slope of enlightenment. There’s no end to it. Experts who seem aligned with each other and have decades of experience between them still get into heated debates about nuances of specific instructional methods. The research will keep going, and the curriculum will keep developing, and we will refine our beliefs about what works best over and over again for as long as we stay committed to this subject. It’s OK that we don’t have all the answers.

But it’s not OK to ignore this issue any longer. There are policies that Illinois should enact to improve equitable access to evidence-based, comprehensive literacy instruction for all students. None of them are silver bullets. None of them are easy. None of us individually have the only recipe for a policy solution.

After the Right to Read Act (SB 3900 (Lightford/Mayfield)) sparked interest from many groups, the State Board of Education (ISBE) announced that it would sponsor a convening of state, local, and national experts to dig into literacy best practices and policies for Illinois. This is exactly the sort of action we should be looking for. ISBE will be the agency to implement whatever changes are enacted, so it makes perfect sense that it will lead the conversation and assume ownership of this important issue. In fact, one of the things I have discovered is that ISBE has already adopted some pretty great literacy standards!

I am hopeful to see comprehensive and inclusive conversations about this going forward, with an eye toward adopting a literacy plan for the state that can truly support Illinois children – no matter where they live – to develop foundations to become strong readers.

P.S. – If you like puzzles, literacy, and the Illinois legislature, try your hand at this crossword we created for Stand’s newsletter. The more people solve these things, the more I can justify continuing to make them!

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You could figuratively say we “won the lottery” when we got the COVID shot, an unprecedented marvel of science that took just a year to go from discovering a deadly new disease to testing and securing emergency authorization for a vaccine to guard against it. And here we are, living in the country with the most innovative scientists who miraculously developed these vaccines, which we are all privileged to have access to now.

Every Monday from July 12 – August 16, three vaccinated Illinoisans can also literally say they won the lottery. If you were vaccinated in Illinois, you’re automatically in the running for the prize. (And if you aren’t vaccinated, hurry! There are regional drawings today, August 12, with the last drawing coming on August 26, when two grand prize winners will win $1 million each.) Even vaccinated Illinois youth have a chance to win $150,000 scholarships throughout the summer.

This got me thinking about an age-old question that comes up all the time: “Wasn’t the lottery supposed to fund public education?” The short answer: It does, but it’s not nearly enough money. The Illinois Lottery generates about $700 million each year that goes to the Common School Fund. That $700 million is a lot of money but still only a drop in the bucket compared to how much is needed to fully fund public education. The Illinois State Board of Education’s general funds budget is about $9 billion. And that doesn’t even include the additional billions in early childhood expenses that are appropriated through other agencies, higher education costs, or teacher pensions. And of course, keep in mind that none of these things are fully funded at their current appropriation level.

But, of course, there’s a longer answer, too. When the lottery was created in 1974, there was plenty of debate on whether the proceeds should go to education, but in the end, they went to the General Revenue Fund and were allocated for regional public transit. That changed in 1985, when the legislature passed a bill re-directing lottery receipts to the Common School Fund. However, that did not directly lead to an increase in education funding. In the words of the sponsor from floor debate (all emphasis added by me):

“…we will not be adding one penny more necessarily, but it is just the intent of what we…all thought originally might be done, that we will put all of the money in the Common School Fund. As the bill began its process through the legislature years ago, that’s what the public was told and that’s what we will do, but it will not increase the money per se.”

Here’s an opponent speaking up on floor debate:

“…after you pass this bill and you come back here in a couple years, and you begin to get comments from those same constituents at the meeting who say to you, hey, you promised us lottery money, you passed it and we still didn’t get it…. It’s a charade.”

And another floor comment:

“I’m going to support this proposition because if nothing else the public will feel better that they know that these funds are supposedly going to education, but we in the legislature know better, that in fact there’s going to be more bureaucracy, there’s going to be more accounting practices and it’s going to cost the State more than it takes in.”

(I seriously could lose days just reading old floor transcripts… fascinating stuff!)

When I was a lowly budget analyst on the Illinois Senate staff, one of the most basic things we learned when analyzing an appropriation is to note which type of funding it uses:

  • Federal Funds. From the perspective of the State, federal funds are great! We appropriate them in the budget so we can spend them, but the State doesn’t have much discretion over how much we get or how we spend it.
  • Other State Funds. There are about a bazillion “funds” that exist for various dedicated purposes. These are things like licensing fees that go into a fund that pays administrative costs for – you guessed it! – licensing. Or gas taxes that go to the Road Fund. Most “fees” end up in some “other” State fund. When the budget comes together, the legislature might look at whether there are fund balances in any of these accounts to “sweep” into General Funds, but other than that, there’s not a lot of flexibility over where they go.
  • General Funds. Now THIS is the big one. This is the part of the budget that has a lot of discretion in how it’s spent (and on which I spent most of my time analyzing a decade ago). “General Funds” include the General Revenue Fund, the Common School Fund, and the Education Assistance Fund. Individual and corporate income taxes, sales taxes, and lottery proceeds are the sources of General Funds.

Maybe that’s TMI. But here’s the thing: if we really, really wanted to be 100% sure that lottery proceeds supplemented education funding on top of what was already going there, wouldn’t we categorize it as an “Other State Funds?” That way, any increase in lottery proceeds would be in addition to whatever other General Funds increase was appropriated. The lottery does go the Common Schools Fund and the Common Schools Fund does go to education, but it isn’t directly tied.

Things got even more complicated in 2009. As a part of the capital bill that year, the General Assembly outsourced management of the lottery to a private vendor and authorized internet ticket sales. The hope was that the private vendor would significantly increase lottery receipts to help fund capital projects. The Common Schools Fund would continue to receive the same lottery funds it got in 2009, plus inflation. Any amounts over that would go toward capital. This protected the lottery’s funding for education, but also created even more disconnect between lottery sales and education funding levels.

The bottom line, in my opinion, is that even though the lottery’s tie to the Common School Fund wasn’t intended to bring more funding for schools, that $700 million would have to come from somewhere if the lottery didn’t exist. But when you buy a lottery ticket, you might actually be paying for bonds for capital projects.

Remember, August 26 is the last drawing for the COVID vaccine lottery. If you want a chance at $1 million, make sure you get that vaccine! And if you don’t literally win the lottery, you still win because you’re inoculated against COVID and you’ve done your part to stop community spread, keep schools open, and stay healthy.

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UPDATE: Changes related to this issue have been included in SB 2017, the Budget Implementation Bill that recently passed both houses of the Illinois legislature. The teacher pension provisions of that measure include:

  • Changing the calculation of Final Average Salary to the highest four of the last 10 years, rather than requiring those years to be consecutive. (For “Tier One” teachers (that is, those who started teaching after 2010 and are subject to a lower level of pension benefits already), this would change to the highest eight in 10 years, rather than requiring those years to be consecutive.)
  • Excluding from the 6% cap salary increases incurred as a result of working an overload the year after an emergency declaration. This fixes an unintended consequence that would penalize districts when, for instance, a teacher that always teaches summer school was unable to mid-COVID and now that summer school has been re-added, the salary increase exceeds the 6% cap.
  • Excluding from the 6% cap salary increases resulting from increasing the amount of instructional time beyond the base year of 2019-2020.

Illinois schools are getting a lot of federal COVID-19 recovery funds. That’s good because among the remote learning expenses, learning loss investments, and costs to safely re-open, Illinois schools have a boatload of new expenses. When all is said and done, Illinois schools will have gotten nearly $8 billion in federal funds through 2024 for COVID recovery through three recovery packages enacted that allocated funding to the Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief (ESSER) fund.

Most of those funds flow directly to school districts through the Title I formula, which is based on student poverty.

A quick intro to how teacher pensions are funded

The Teachers’ Retirement System (TRS) is the pension system for public school teachers and administrators outside of Chicago. Generally, the State of Illinois pays the employer costs of teacher pensions, even though the teachers are actually employed by their local school districts. Those employer costs include the normal cost (that is, the cost to keep up with current pension obligations without paying off or stacking up any debt) and the unfunded liability (which is the large amount of debt that has accrued from many previous years when the State failed to pay the normal cost).

There are some exceptions to this, requiring school districts to pay:

  • A small employer contribution of 0.58% of payroll for all employees covered by TRS.
  • The normal cost rate for employees paid with federal funding.
  • The amount of each pension attributable to raises over 6% in the final years of salary or salary higher than the Governor’s.

Everything in this blog relates to TRS-covered teachers and their school districts. In other words, it’s not relevant for Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and their teachers. Since CPS pays for its own teacher pensions, it doesn’t have the same kind of disconnect that other school districts and the State face between who spends the money and who pays the bill.

Now let’s look at a couple of the ways these exceptions get a little complicated in practice. (There are complexities even under normal circumstances, but the infusion of federal funds has amplified the impact.) 

The TRS Surcharge

School districts will be on the hook for paying pension normal costs associated with the federal funding they choose to spend on teacher and administrator salaries. If they used state or local money to pay those salaries, they would only pay 0.58% of salary to TRS. But since they are using federal funding, they have to pay 10% of salary to TRS. It could be worse: four years ago, districts paid the full unfunded liability rate for salaries of federally-funded teachers – a whopping 45%.

Four years ago, we wrote “An Education Funding No-Brainer” about this issue. Because federal funds are heavily directed toward areas of high poverty and to fund special education, the State was disproportionately using funding designated for our most vulnerable children to pay down pension debt. HB 656 was enacted in 2017, bringing the federal funds rate from the unfunded liability rate (then 45%, and now 50%) to the normal cost rate (10%).[1]

For clarity, here are the four different rates we’re talking about:

  • School district contribution rate for state- and locally-paid teachers: 0.58%
  • School district contribution rate for federally-funded teachers: 10%
  • Unfunded liability rate: 50%. (This would be the rate a school district would pay for a federally-funded position if HB 656 hadn’t passed. It literally means that if a district hired a teacher at a salary of $50,000, it would have to pay TRS $25,000 as the pension contribution.)
  • Teacher’s employee contribution rate: 9%.[2]

The upshot here is that the $8 billion in federal funds won’t stretch quite as far for school districts as it would if it was state money. School districts will still probably weigh their options and maximize their accounting expertise to pay for salaries with state and local money, while buying materials with federal funds.

We fought hard against the unfunded liability rate because it was a tremendous inequity, so some have wondered whether it’s fair to charge the 10% normal cost rate, as opposed to the nominal 0.58. After all, it still charges local districts more if their money comes from federal sources based on poverty than if it comes from local sources driven by property wealth.

It is still an inequity – just like the overall teacher pension funding system, where better-off districts rack up more pension costs to be paid by the State than poorer districts. But continuing to charge the normal cost rate is the responsible policy decision here. Federal funds going to schools can be budgeted for this purpose, and digging the state’s pension funding hole deeper is not a wise decision in the long-term. We can fix the inequity by integrating pension funding with the Evidence-Based Funding Formula, or by gradually shifting pension costs for locally-paid employees to the local districts while increasing Evidence-Based Funding proportionally. (But this is an issue that lives to fight another day…)

The 6% cap

This one is trickier and I don’t know if there’s a perfect solution. In 2005, the legislature imposed the “6% cap” as a way to crack down on golden parachutes. That is, some school districts had gotten into the habit of bargaining for large end-of-career pay spikes for teachers, whose pensions would increase proportionally for life – with the State being on the hook for paying for it. That’s the disconnect between having local employers setting salaries with the State picking up their tab for the pensions.

So the 6% cap was a creative response to discourage this sort of behavior, and it has pretty much tamped down on the egregious pay spiking as intended. But ever since then, there have always been exceptions – like a school district in the midst of a teacher shortage that needs a current teacher to teach an overload, or a teacher taking on a new after-school tutoring responsibility. Those cases might necessitate a raise over 6% without any intention to game the system and spike a pension.

There are a few ways the pandemic will impact the 6% cap:

  • First, with the infusion of federal funding for learning recovery, school districts should be ramping up programs for high-quality tutoring, summer school, enrichment, social-emotional support, extended school days and school years, and other programs. If we want those programs to be effective, we are going to depend on licensed teachers who have the expertise to best support students. And if we want those teachers – many of whom just came off the most stressful teaching year of their career – to sign up to teach and tutor and enrich and support and otherwise significantly extend their work hours, they are going to need more than a 6% salary increase to do it.
  • Second, even without the federal funds, school districts may bump up against the 6% cap in the cases of teachers who used to coach or teach summer school before the pandemic started – but took a pandemic-related pause on those extras. Now, when they get back into the swing of things, they will return to getting the stipends they used to get. Except now, it will trigger the 6% cap.
  • And third, coupling the above considerations with the prospect that school districts may be in a position to provide increases across the salary schedule for teachers who have just completed an exceptionally challenging school year since there will be funding available, the chances of busting the 6% cap is even greater.

So… what’s the policy solution? The intention of the 6% cap was to curb end-of-career salary spiking, not to create barriers to getting great teachers to fill desperately-need positions to make up for learning loss caused by a global pandemic. By the time the bill becomes due (a one-time payment right after the teacher retires), in most cases, it will be past the deadline to spend those federal funds and the school district will have to dip into their state and local resources to pay it. 

While in my opinion, there’s no perfect way to handle this, here are some thoughts for reasonable solutions for this year:

  1. Pause the 6% cap for the year for salary increases tied to additional work responsibilities related to summer school, extended day and year, and other learning recovery-related duties. This could be strengthened with guardrails clarifying that any increase disproportionally targeting end-of-career teachers would not be exempt so as not to open doors to golden parachutes. And heck, might as well make it for 2 – 3 years, because the federal funds are available 2024 and no one wants to see a mad scramble to spend all of it immediately without thoughtful implementation over time.
  2. Allow districts to pre-pay any estimated 6% overage, which would enable them to use the federal funds for that purpose. (Of course, this creates another hiccup because no one really who all is going to retire when, so any pre-payment would be an estimate.)
  3. Appropriate the minimum funding level increase of $350 million in Evidence-Based Funding, because one-time federal funding is nice, but it won’t last over the long-term.
  4. For school districts, consider whether the work you prioritize with your recovery funds is eligible for TRS credit. Extending the school day and year? Those salary increases are pensionable; teacher licensure is required to teach. But what about tutoring? Are districts requiring licensure for tutors? If not, that salary isn’t eligible for TRS. (Apparently this is a frequent subject of audit. If a teacher works the football game for $100, that $100 shouldn’t actually be reported to TRS. But people do it all the time.)
  5. At a minimum, before criticizing school districts for hitting the 6% and paying some overage, consider the extenuating circumstances this year and give everyone a little grace.

Stand for Children would support any of these ideas. We are especially partial to #3, which should happen regardless of any of this. Perhaps #1 may be the most practical concept to work with. As the budget gets crafted over the next two weeks, minimizing the unintended consequences of the 6% cap would certainly be an appropriate inclusion in any budget implementation bill.

[1] This is seriously a big deal. It’s the kind of structural change that advances equity and changes lives. We appreciate the sponsors and legislators who voted to make it happen.

[2] Yes, I know I didn’t actually mention this rate anywhere else, but it is worth mentioning that teachers also contribution a substantial chunk of change from their own paychecks toward their pension benefits. Sometimes districts agree to pick up some or all of that cost through their contract negotiation process; other times, teachers pay the whole thing.

1/12/2021 UPDATE: The bill has now passed both chambers and will head to the Governor for his signature! Amendment 3 made a few additional changes before it passed, most notably removing the changes to the Invest in Kids Act altogether, launching a feasibility study to consider the appropriate agency home for the Workforce Investment Act program (rather than moving it to IDES), and adding a literacy focus and some parameters to the Freedom Schools section.

1/9/2021 UPDATE: Amendment 2 has been filed. The major difference is that some components have been removed: the Equity in Early Childhood Education Act, the anti-racism grants within the Evidence-Based Funding Formula (which the Professional Review Panel will now consider, instead), the provisions to lengthen the school year for learning recovery, and the driver’s license stuff (which I’m guessing found a more appropriate home in a criminal justice bill). These were all good things; they will live to fight another day. We get it that it’s a careful balancing act when deciding what all goes into a huge package like this and, at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what’s in there if it can’t get 60 votes in the House and 30 in the Senate.

There are some additions of other good stuff, most notably an Inclusive American History Commission and some fleshing out about periods of Black History that have to be taught. It adds prioritization for National Board Certified Teachers stipends to rural and diverse candidate cohort facilitators, and shift administration of the Workforce Investment Act from the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity to the Department of Employment Security.

***

For months, education champion and rockstar negotiator Sen. Kimberly A. Lightford has brought together education and racial justice advocates to craft a nearly 500-page amendment to advance racial equity in Illinois schools, from birth through college. This week, she filed the legislation, compiling dozens of policy changes with the goal of reversing centuries of systemic racism in education and significantly bolstering opportunities for Black students.

This bill is jam-packed with good policy ideas, many of which Stand for Children supported as individual concepts and which we are now pleased to support as an overall package. The summary below walks through everything that is in there as of today, starting with a few of my favorites and eventually getting to everything. (If things change substantially, I’ll pop back over here with some updates over the next few days as well.)

ACADEMIC ACCELERATION

Based on a Washington state law that tripled the percentage of Black high school students in advanced courses, this policy requires schools to automatically enroll students who meet or exceed standards into the next most rigorous course. Students who are automatically enrolled can choose to opt out if a different course better fits their goals. It does not remove any of the existing pathways for enrollment into advanced courses, but it removes any element of implicit bias and opens doors for more students to eventually access courses that earn them early college credit. (pages 62 – 67. See our factsheet here.)

EQUITABLE COURSEWORK FOR COLLEGE ACCESS

No matter where they go to high school, all students should have access to the recommended courses needed for admission into any public university in Illinois. This provision requires the Illinois Board of Higher Education (IBHE) to report college admission coursework recommendations. Students must have access to these recommended courses. Schools can fulfill the requirement to provide it by offering it in house or partnering with a neighboring district, community college, or other course provider. The bill also adds a requirement that the science courses required for graduation be laboratory sciences, and, with a long implementation period to allow teacher pipeline reforms to work, adds two years of foreign language to the graduation requirements. (pages 42 – 49. See our factsheet here.)

EQUITY IN EARLY EDUCATION ACT

Deleted. But stay tuned for this spring… We’ll be working on this! See our factsheet here.

COMPUTER SCIENCE AND LITERACY

The bill defines computer science and directs ISBE to create computer science standards. It requires high schools to offer computer science to student who want it. The graduation requirements are modified to require one course to include a focus in computer literacy. Schools must provide students with opportunities for developmentally appropriate computer literacy skills beginning in elementary school. (pages 49 – 62)

EVIDENCE-BASED FUNDING

The monumental 2017 overhaul of the school funding formula also included a provision creating a Professional Review Panel (PRP) to monitor the formula throughout implementation. HB 2170 would charge the PRP with reviewing the adult-to-student ratios specified in the cost factors to determine whether it accurately reflects staffing needed to support students in poverty, changes in cost factors to promote racial equity, the impact of investing $350 million each year, an overview of alternative funding structures, and potential efficiencies within the system, appropriate funding levels for re-enrolling students who previously dropped out, and evidence-based practices that reduce academic achievement gaps for Black students. (pages 149 – 151)

LEARNING RECOVERY

HB 2170 charges the P-20 Council with considering long-term and short-term learning recovery strategies, including a plan to address the digital divide; evaluate the impact of school closures and remote learning on student outcomes; establish a system for the collection of data; and ensure more time for students’ academic, social emotional, and mental health needs. (pages 67 – 77)

SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL HEALTH

The Whole Child Task Force is created to establish equitable, inclusive, safe, and supported environment in all schools, taking steps to ensure every child has access to educators and social workers trained in evidence-based interventions and restorative practices. (pages 26 – 34) The Freedom Schools fund would provide grants, subject to appropriation, for enriching programs that affirm Black identity. (pages 77 – 81)

DIVERSE EDUCATOR PIPELINE

Four components address the shortage of teachers generally and Black teachers specifically (pages 179 – 208):

  • It removes the 3.0 GPA requirement to get into alternative licensure programs.
  • The Minority Teacher Initiative scholarship program is amended to increase priority funds for Black males, change the prioritization from first come/first serve to those who received scholarships the previous year and have demonstrated financial need, and create a set-aside for bilingual teachers as the appropriation for the program grows.
  • AIM HIGH is amended to reduce universities’ match requirement from 100%, with institutions with more low-income students kicking in 20% and those with fewer low-income students contributing 60%.
  • Finally, the Transitions in Education Act encourages ISBE, IBE, and ICCB to establish a task force for a Major Panel in Education, which would identify courses that would be accepted upon transfer.
  • The National Board Certified Teacher program would prioritize in awarding stipends to NBCT Candidate Cohort Trainers who work with rural and diverse candidates. (pages 252 – 258)

HIGHER EDUCATION ACCESS

Nearly half of full-time community college students are placed in developmental education courses, which do not earn college credit, upon starting college. For Black students, the number is even higher: 71% are funneled into developmental courses. Only 8% of Black students who are placed in developmental education courses will go on to graduate. The Developmental Education Reform Act creates a multiple measures approach to placement in credit-bearing college courses. Students who successfully complete a high school transitional course, earn a specific GPA, or meet certain thresholds on placement exams or standardized tests would be able to bypass developmental courses. Institutions must publicly post their placement policies, and ICCB and IBHE would consolidate the information into reports disaggregated by demographic data and by developmental course model. (pages 155 – 164)

The Equity in Higher Education Act outlines the General Assembly’s support for the IBHE strategic plan to close equity gaps, increase post-secondary degree attainment, and improve affordability. It encourages IBHE to prepare an array of policy changes needed for implementation of the plan by May 1, 2021. (pages 151 – 155)

EARLY CHILDHOOD

Many components of the bill deal with expansion of early childhood, increasing compensation for early childhood teachers, and improving the quality and equity of programs, including provisions to:

  • Codify the requirement for an annual valid, reliable, and developmentally appropriate kindergarten readiness assessment. ISBE currently uses the Kindergarten Individual Development Survey (KIDS) for this. (pages 1 – 11)
  • Allow children to continue receiving early intervention services after their third birthday until the school year starts and they have access to preschool. (pages 11 – 16)
  • Support the goals of the Commission on Equitable Early Childhood Education and Care Funding, which is working to create a more equitable and efficient system, consolidate programs into a single adequately staffed agency, ensure equitable and adequate funding, redesign payment mechanisms, and consider data collection needs. It would also encourage a timetable for the work with a designated body to implement recommendations. (pages 16 – 20)
  • Amend the Infant/Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation Act to encourage increasing availability of consultations, developing materials for providers and parents about the value of mental health consultations, and increasing funding for training and support. It also remedies a problem with diagnostic coding to remove barriers to developmentally appropriate assessments. (pages 34 – 39)
  • Create the Early Childhood Workforce Act to increase the early childhood teacher pipeline and its diversity. Under the Act, DHS, ISBE, and IBHE would each have a role in providing outreach and access to financial supports to increase the diversity of the pipeline, analysis on scholarship recipients, and barriers for early childhood teachers to complete coursework to earn credentials. (pages 40 – 42)
  • Encourage DHS to re-examine the definition of “at-risk” and the diagnosed medical conditions that typically result in a delay, charge the Early Intervention Training Program to create a plan for outreach, develop a plan for the State to launch early intervention specialized teams, and work in a public-private partnership to establish at least two demonstration sites with hospital neo-natal intensive care units. (pages 216 – 220)

INVEST IN KIDS

The Invest in Kids tax-credit scholarship program currently provides donors tax credits for donating to program, which provides private school scholarships to students in families below 300% of the federal poverty level. HB 2170 would add the ability for scholarships to be used at technical academies for Career and Technical Education programs. (pages 164 – 179)

DATA COLLECTION TO SUPPORT RACIAL JUSTICE

data collection provision, which requires the Governor’s Office and the Department of Innovation and Technology to jointly administer a governance to catalog data supporting major programs, identify similar fields in datasets, improve data quality, collect racial and ethnicity data, develop common process and legal approaches for data sharing, establishing common codes across datasets, and generally catalyzing the process to better interagency data analysis. (pages 20 – 26)

INCLUSIVE HISTORY CURRICULUM

The bill requires ISBE to adopt social science learning standards that are inclusive of all individuals in the country. An Inclusive American History Commission is created to review available resources for use in schools that reflect the diversity of the State, provide guidance on each learning standard on how to ensure instruction and curriculum are not bias to value specific cultures or experiences over others, and provide guidance on professional learning on how to utilize and locate non-dominant cultural narratives and sources. It also amends the Black History study requirement to add the pre-enslavement period and the American civil rights renaissance, and a study of the reasons why Black people came to be enslaved. (pages 208 – 214)

WORKFORCE INVESTMENT ACT ADMINISTRATION

The responsibilities and funding connected to the Workforce Investment Act are transferred from the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity to the Department of Employment Security. (pages 214 – 252)

High property taxes drive school funding inequity. But for every 2 districts that over-tax, there is at least 1 under-taxing district out there.

The Evidence-Based Funding Formula identifies a target property tax rate for every district. The model calculates how much each district needs to be funded adequately. It then specifies a local capacity percentage (LCP) based on how much property wealth each district has. A district with lots of property wealth will have an LCP of up to 90%. That means if a district’s per pupil adequacy target is $12,000 and its LCP is 75%, the formula expects the district to raise $9,000 per pupil locally. From there, we can back into an “implied” tax rate for each district.

Most districts tax themselves higher than their implied tax rate. (Those are all the orange dots above the blue line in the chart below.) But 310 districts (the orange dots below the blue line) actually tax themselves lower than that rate. A rate freeze would impact these districts across the board. Freezing undertaxed districts would guarantee that those schools will never reach adequate funding. (And inflationary increases compound quickly, so lots of the 543 districts that are “over-taxing” now would fall under the blue line after a few years of increased adequacy costs and frozen levies.)

Addressing property taxes in the formula was a sticking point during the school funding negotiations. Should the formula recognize districts’ whole property tax levy? If they are over-taxing themselves, that could push the districts into a higher tier and further solidify their reliance on property taxes. If they are under-taxing themselves, that could knock them down a tier and put them in line for more state funding than other deserving districts that have put forth more local effort.

On the other hand, should the formula ignore actual rates and just use the implied rates? That would completely disconnect the question of how districts tax locally with how much state funding they get for their schools. There would be no incentive to under-tax, but no disincentive to over-tax.

The Evidence-Based Formula decided to use the best of both worlds: for districts that were under-taxing (the orange dots below the blue line), the model assumes they are taxing at their implied rate (the blue line itself). For districts that are over-taxing themselves (orange dots above the blue line), the model recognizes a portion of their overage in order to encourage them to reduce their rates. How much depends on how much property wealth a district has. The overage is multiplied by the district’s LCP, thus wealthier districts will be penalized more for overtaxing and therefore, incentivized further to lower their levies.

Let’s look at a few examples:

  • An under-funded district trying to compensate locally. North Chicago SD 187, a property-poor district that is expected to raise just 10% of its funds locally. That gives the district a $5.5 million target levy. However, North Chicago is so underfunded, it taxes itself almost twice that much, $5.1 million more. Because the district’s LCP is 10%, just 10% of that over-levy will “count” against the district in the formula.
  • An above-adequacy over-taxer. The property-wealthy Bannockburn SD 106 is expected to raise $1.8 million, which is 90% of its adequacy target. But the district brings in $5.5 million, $4.7 million more than the model expects. The formula will recognize 90% of Bannockburn’s $4.7 million overage.
  • An almost-adequate under-taxer. Rockdale SD 84 in Will County is expected to raise 60% of its adequacy target from property taxes. But it only brings in 24% of that total. Its implied tax rate is 3.2%, but its actual rate is just about 1.2%. The formula assumes that Rockdale raises its full Local Capacity Target. It would hardly be fair to the rest of the districts to reward Rockdale’s under-taxing with more state money. But it would be equally unfair to Rockdale to freeze its levy where it is, so far from its expected rate with a formula that assumes it has access to those resources.

In the statewide aggregate, there are over $3 billion in property taxes levied by school districts above what the formula expects them to bring in. About $2 billion of those are for school districts funded below adequacy. There are about $1 billion in property tax over-levies in over-adequacy districts. Finally, there are $670 million in uncaptured property tax receipts, almost all in districts that are funded below adequacy.

Finding the right balance between providing property tax relief and moving toward adequate school funding is a challenge. If it was easy, someone would have done it. But it’s worth it to wade into this complex territory because this is such a critical issue. Let’s just make sure we acknowledge that it is complicated and will require more than a one-size-fits-all solution.

Sometimes I feel like my work life and home life are totally disconnected, competing elements in my world. But that certainly wasn’t the case the day I was at work drumming up info on how early childhood programs were being defunded and I received a text that the program for the 3-year old of my teenage foster daughter was ending because they lost their state grant.

This program, Parents as Teachers, is among hundreds of early child providers who responded to the Request for Proposals (RFP) from the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE). Many programs got funded. In fact, because Springfield added $50 million more this year to the Early Childhood Block Grant (ECBG), there will be 5,000 more kids getting access to programs this year. However, a hundred or so did not receive a grant, and some long-serving programs are planning to close their doors.

Before we get into why, let’s start with the basics: What is the ECBG? It’s a program in the ISBE budget that funds preschool and birth-to-three programs. This year, there was almost $500 million appropriated to the ECBG. Programs serving children ages 0-3 receive about 20% of the funds and the remainder goes to preschool programs.

State law requires funding to be awarded through competitive grants. That is, districts and other providers apply for grants, and ISBE funds the ones deemed to be high-quality. This year, the RFP process was opened to new applicants, which is a change since the last RFP process in 2012. At that time, the RFP was only open to providers that had previously received grants. Not only was this year’s RFP process open to new applicants, so the pool was bigger, applicants were encouraged to write their proposals for the actual costs of providing a high-quality program, so a lot more money was requested than there were available funds. Providers could apply for Prevention Initiative funding (for birth-to-three programs), Preschool for All (for Pre-K programs), and Preschool for All Expansion grants (to expand infrastructure and fund full-day programs in high-poverty areas’ Pre-K programs).

ISBE Rules outline what the agency looks for in the proposals and require programs to earn at least 60 points, with 100 points possible:

  • Population to be Served (e.g., how much poverty is in the area and how well do programs recruit the students most in need) – 30 points
  • Quality of Program – 40 points
  • Experience and Qualifications of Program Staff – 20 points
  • Cost Effectiveness of the Program – 10 points

ISBE added 10 additional “priority points” for programs that serve the neediest populations and regions. Three reviewers scored each proposal and their scores were averaged. Programs with more than 60 points would be qualified for funding. (Some programs we’ve heard about in the news didn’t meet the 60-point threshold, like Waukegan and Jonesboro.)

Among the programs that scored over 60, several dozen Prevention Initiative and Preschool Expansion Grants still did not receive a grant because there was not enough money to fully fund the need. (My foster granddaughter’s program is in this category: it received 70 points, but ISBE only had enough funds to get through Prevention Initiative applications scoring over 77 points.) You can see the scores for all the applicants here. It would cost about $20 million to fund the programs in this category.

And finally, a third group of programs are the ones that did get funded. Many of these applicants wrote grants based on what they needed to run a world-class program, with the best evidence-based practices. ISBE awarded these applicants a cost-of-living bump from their last grant, but none got the sort of funding increase they sought. If the requested amounts had been fully funded, it would have cost $170 million.

In a bit of good news, yesterday ISBE announced that, the agency is working with the Department of Human Services to find the $20 million needed to fund all the qualified programs (the ones scoring over 60).

There’s no easy solution to any of this as long as we continue to underfund early childhood.

I’ve heard some suggest that early childhood funding should flow through a formula instead of through competitive grants. In fact, during the school funding reform debate, some early drafts moved early childhood funds into the main funding formula. The most obvious problem with this approach is that formula funds go to school districts, while about one-third of early childhood providers are non-profit organizations, which don’t get formula dollars.

There are other questions too, like whether the quality of programs funded would be impacted and whether funds would be used for other purposes if they were added to the main formula. The Professional Review Panel, created in the school funding bill, met for the first time last month and created a subcommittee on early childhood issues. I’m guessing that will be the most immediate place for the formula vs. grant conversation, and I’m also hopeful that the panel will discuss what “adequate” early childhood funding looks like so that we can also put Illinois on the path to fully funding the needs for all of our young children.

The Governor signed the budget today (yay!) and we’re all praising the legislature for adding another $350 million towards the evidence-based funding formula enacted last year.

Let’s break down that $350 million a bit more.

$300 million of that figure will be equitably distributed first to the school districts that are the most under-funded (i.e., furthest away from adequacy) and just like last year, no district will lose money.

The remaining $50 million will be “swapped” for property tax relief, with those funds rebated to homeowners in the form of grants.

If Springfield had allocated more than $350 million, the remaining amounts would be handled in the same manner as the $300 million.

This is the first time in history that these property tax relief grants have been funded. It’s uncharted territory, but here’s how it works:

  • School districts with the highest property tax rates can apply for a grant.
  • By August 1 of each year, the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) will estimate what tax rate school districts must have in order to be eligible. It all depends on how much money is put into the fund, since more funding means the state can afford more grants.
  • School districts can apply until October 1 for grants worth up to 1% of the “equalized assessed value” of property in the district.
  • By December 1, ISBE will publish a list of districts that qualify, based on the total number of applicants and the threshold tax rate for relief.
  • Qualifying districts will receive their grant payments by January 15.
  • School districts, in turn, rebate the amount of the grant to their property taxpayers.

One of the facts that became abundantly clear during the examination and re-write of the formula is that school funding isn’t just inequitable for students. It’s also inequitable for property taxpayers. Those who live in the poorest areas pay the highest property tax rates. For example, at the lower wealth end of the spectrum, one elementary district in the south suburbs has a tax rate of 9.8%, but it is still only 59% funded. At the other side, one of the wealthier elementary districts – which is funded at 288% – has a rate of just 1.5%.

So in August, you might take a peek at the ISBE website to see what tax rates might qualify. If your school district has a higher rate, ping your school board about going for a grant. It’s a new program and it’ll take some work to get it going, but what a great opportunity to reduce the reliance on property taxes without costing our schools those needed resources!

Recently, the Governor issued an amendatory veto of the school funding trailer bill, which begs the question: what happens next so schools can finally start getting their new funding? But before we answer that, we’ll walk through a few other questions for background:

  • What was the funding bill?
  • What does “trailer bill” mean?
  • What is the amendatory veto (AV)?

What was the funding bill?  SB1947 was a long overdue overhaul of Illinois’s worst-in-the-nation school funding formula, supported on a broad bipartisan basis and signed into law by Governor Rauner. There were basically four steps in the new formula:

  1. First, every district would get the same amount of state funding it received last year. That’s called its Base Funding Minimum.
  2. Then, a Local Capacity Target is calculated to show how much local revenue a school district can collect through property taxes. When we add the Base Funding Minimum and the Local Capacity Target, we can see how much funding the district already has available to spend.
  3. Next, a unique Adequacy Target is determined, based on the actual costs of providing best practices to educate the student population in that district.
  4. Finally, as the state allocates new funds to education, it distributes the new funds in tiers, with the school districts whose Local Capacity Targets are furthest from their Adequacy Targets getting the most. This year, Springfield allocated $350 million in new dollars to education, a significant amount but not nearly enough to get all districts to Adequacy.

SB1947 also included the Invest in Kids Act, a program that would give tax breaks to donors who contributed to a scholarship fund for low-income students attending state-recognized, private schools.

Check out our blog post all about the funding formula here and read more about the tax-credit scholarships here. Even though the Governor has been touting this bill as the top accomplishment of his tenure and a key reason to re-elect him, last week he issued an AV that would delay the neediest schools getting the increased investment they so desperately need. Confused on why he thought doing so was a good idea? Me too.

What does “trailer bill” mean?

Almost any time the legislature passes a huge bill, there are some technical odds and ends that need to be tied up. A “trailer bill” comes after the major substantive legislation. SB1947 was one of the biggest changes in years, and as the State Board of Education (ISBE) began their gargantuan task of implementing the new formula, the agency found a couple of critical changes that had to be tweaked before releasing the new money. ISBE asked the legislature for a trailer bill to make those changes, and SB444 passed on a bipartisan basis, giving ISBE the changes it requested. The House unanimously voted for the trailer bill, and the Senate voted 42-11 for it.

Specifically, the technical changes in SB444 fixed two drafting errors, both of which assumed that districts had access to more property wealth than they actually have. (This is important during that second step: calculating the Local Capacity Target.) Some of those districts couldn’t access the local revenue for a variety of reasons, but regardless, the result is that 178 school districts would unfairly appear to be more adequately funded than they actually are.

There are likely dozens of other technical changes to discuss and clean-up in another trailer bill in the longer term. But these fixes in SB444 are the most critical two to ensure that the funds go where they were intended.

What is the amendatory veto?

Instead of signing the bill into law, the Governor issued an amendatory veto adding another change that has to do with the difference between being a state-recognized school, or merely a state-registered school. Right now, only state-recognized, private schools can participate in the Invest in Kids program Some might say that before tax dollars go to private schools, the schools should at least cross a minimum threshold. Recognition requires site visits, curriculum reviews, staff background checks, anti-discrimination policies, and other ISBE oversight. After all, public school performance is transparent because of the state’s school report cards; there is no private-school equivalent.

The amendatory veto would expand participation in the tax credit scholarship program to schools that are state-registered by February 2018; effectively 250 private schools that are “registered,” but not “recognized,” would automatically be eligible.

Some private schools say they have never pursued recognition because there was no reason to, but now they are scrambling to go through the recognition process so they can accept scholarships.

What happens next before schools can get their funding?

ISBE has a challenge ahead of it to implement the new funding model for the first time, and the language confusion adds to an already-tough job. The Senate comes back to session on January 30, so that is the soonest SB444 could see legislative action. At that point, there are three options, and it is generally up to the chief sponsor to decide which one to pursue (with one big caveat*):

  1. They can override the AV, which requires a three-fifths majority vote. Then the language of SB444 before the AV would take effect, and tax-credit scholarships would only go to state-recognized private schools.
  2. They can accept the AV, which requires a simple majority vote. Then the language of SB444 would take effect, including the Governor’s recommended change expanding participating private schools.
  3. Or, they can do nothing, which would leave 178 school districts with inaccurate local wealth assumptions and cause even more confusion about implementation.

When reasonable people have a desire to compromise and meet each other halfway, they can sometimes negotiate an agreement to address the issues in an AV through another bill. The question is whether leaders in Springfield are feeling amenable to compromise these days. The school year is almost halfway over. We’ve all celebrated passage of this historic bill, which indeed deserves celebration – but our students still haven’t seen a penny of new money through the formula. It is time to stop the administrative delays, give ISBE what it needs to do its job, and get our schools the new investment we promised.

*About that caveat, it is up to the Rules Committee or Assignments Committee to assign the chief sponsor’s motion. (Literally, the chief sponsor will sign a piece of paper that says they move to accept the Governor’s changes or override them. That “motion” is filed and comes before these procedural committees that assign legislation to their next destination, like a substantive committee or to the floor.) If an amendatory veto is deemed “non-compliant,” the Rules Committee won’t move forward a motion to accept the changes. Amendatory vetoes that exceed the scope of the original bill are deemed “non-compliant.”

Yesterday was the historic bill signing for SB1947, which fixes the worst school funding system in the nation and puts all Illinois schools on the path to adequate and equitable funding. Its predecessor, SB1, had been called the most thoroughly vetted bill in recent Illinois history, given the sheer number of public task forces, working groups, commissions, committees, analyses, hearings, and models surrounding it over four and a half years. That’s left a lot of people wondering…what’s the difference between SB1 and SB1947?

In short, SB1947 keeps SB1 mostly intact and adds some additional items. The major exception to SB1’s intact-ness: it moves the Chicago teacher pension cost provisions from the School Code to the Pension Code (a change that I consider mostly cosmetic, but one that was important because it fixed one of the most heavily criticized pieces of SB1). SB 1947 relaxes state mandates for school districts around P.E. and drivers education, streamlines the existing mandate waiver process, creates a small tax credit scholarship pilot program, allows Chicago to raise its own levy, creates a TIF task force, and builds in a process for taxpayers in school districts that are funded over adequacy to put a referendum on the ballot to decrease property taxes.

We’ll walk through these things point by point, but if you’re just sticking with this shorthand summary, suffice it to say that SB1947 is a huge win for our kids, our state, and our future. The path to get to this point was long and complicated, but it is truly a grassroots victory for every mom, dad, student, teacher, administrator, and taxpayer who spoke up and demanded change from their state government. We wouldn’t have gotten here without it.

The New Funding Formula

The evidence-based model in SB1947 works just like SB1’s. Read more about it here. Here it is in a nutshell. Every district gets:

  1. A “Base Funding Minimum,” which is equal to the amount of state aid it got last year. No one loses a penny state funds from the previous year.
  2. Its own “Adequacy Target” calculation, which looks at their unique population of students and calculates the cost of providing evidence-based practices proven to boost outcomes for those kids. Every district will have its own, unique “Adequacy Target.”
  3. A “Local Capacity Target,” which analyzes a district’s local ability to pay. When we add the Local Capacity Target to the Base Funding Minimum, we can measure how close each district is to its individual Adequacy Target.
  4. Funding from the new formula. New dollars are most heavily invested in the most underfunded districts. This year’s budget provides $350 million in increased funds for the formula.

Mandate Relief

Current law includes a process for districts to request waivers from almost any mandate in the School Code. SB1947 streamlines that process and makes it easier for districts to get relief from state mandates. Rather than requests going to the state legislature, SB1947 would require three of the four legislative leaders to specifically flag a waiver for further consideration in order for it to come before the General Assembly. Otherwise, the State Board would have the authority to approve the waiver.

A provision of state law that limited the number of waivers a district could submit related to the daily P.E. mandate was eliminated in SB1947. The law also changes Illinois’s daily P.E. mandate to a requirement that students have P.E. at least three times per week. Schools can also exempt middle school and high school student athletes from P.E. classes.

Finally, SB1947 removes restrictions around contracting with commercial driving schools to provide drivers education instruction.

Tax Credit Scholarships

SB1947 created a pilot program that would incentivize individual and corporate donations to private school scholarships by providing a 75% tax credit on those donations. The total state cost is capped at $75 million per year and the program will sunset after five years. Students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch are eligible for a full tuition scholarship to a non-public school and receive priority. Students with household incomes between 185% – 250% of the poverty line qualify for 75% of tuition and those between 250% and 300% of the poverty line qualify for a 50% scholarship. The maximum scholarship is equal to the average statewide operating expense per pupil, with additional weights for special needs students and those learning English.

Each year, students accepting the scholarship would take the state assessment. The State Board of Education (ISBE) must hire an independent researcher to complete a report, which would then be integrated in a report to the legislature.

Chicago’s Tax Levy

Chicago, like most districts, is subject to property tax caps that limit the total dollar amount that can be raised from property taxes. That limit is generally based on last year’s levy amount, increased for inflation. CPS’s property tax rate is one of the lowest among unit school districts in the state. A perennial complaint from some SB1 opponents has been that if the state steps up to help CPS, CPS needs to also step up locally. SB1947 authorizes an additional 0.567% levy to pay its debt for Chicago teacher pensions.

Tax Increment Finance Reform Task Force

Tax Increment Finance (TIF) districts, created by municipal governments, are theoretically an economic development tool to help municipalities develop blighted areas. In reality, TIFs remain controversial. Schools, libraries, and other taxing bodies do not collect increased property tax revenue from new developments in TIFs, and that property value is excluded from the state’s calculation of local wealth in the state aid formula. A task force will examine the costs and benefits of TIFs, especially as it relates to the school funding law, and report by April 2018

Property Tax Relief

The bill provides property tax relief directed at two different problems: (1) the property tax system is regressive and hits lower-income homeowners with higher tax rates, and (2) other areas of the state with high local wealth pay a higher dollar amount in property taxes, sometimes for schools that are funded well above their adequacy target.

To address the first issue, a Property Tax Relief Pool Grant program is created. The legislature would have to appropriate funds for the program to take effect, and districts with the highest tax rates would qualify for grants of up to 1% of their districts’ Equalized Assessed Valuation. The grant would be rebated to property taxpayers. Though this was included in SSB1, SB1947 made the additional change of allowing $50 million in property tax relief grants to count toward each year’s minimum funding increase, which further integrates property tax relief into the new system.

To address the second, voters in district that are funded at or above 110% of adequacy would have the ability to petition to get a referendum on the ballot to reduce the property tax levy by up to 10%. 

Yesterday, the State Board of Education released its model of how school districts fare in the first year of the school funding structure in the Governor’s veto of Senate Bill 1. (Recall that Senate Bill 1 is the funding reform bill that fixes our broken school funding system for the first time in two decades, which passed both chambers of the legislature only to be vetoed by the Governor.)

We call on legislators to override the veto. These numbers tell a few interesting stories that show a long term plan to decrease state education funding and push costs of educating kids further onto property tax payers. This overreliance on property taxes is one of the main reasons Illinois has earned the distinction of having the most unfair funding system in the country. Why would we double down on that failed structure?

Here are some initial thoughts:

  1. The definition of adequate funding decreases by over $1 billion. That means even if the evidence-based model were fully funded, schools would still have $1 billion less than they need.
  2. The expected local investment increases by over $700 million. That means local property taxpayers would be expected to pick up more of the cost of education than under the version of SB1 the legislature passed.
  3. Here’s the bigger deal: going forward, the veto ignores inflation and actual cost of living differences. Adequacy is a moving target. If we reach 2017 adequacy levels in 20 years, we can’t pretend that’s the current cost of educating our students.
  4. Districts will soon begin picking up pension costs for their newly-hired teachers. When SB1 passed the legislature, it included those increased costs in the calculation of adequacy. But that was stripped out in the veto so that districts would still have to pay pension costs, but the model would pretend they had that funding available to invest in the classrooms.
  5. In 2020, the model will shift to a per-pupil hold harmless. That means districts that have lost student enrollment, even if they are still not adequately funded, will lose money from their hold harmless.