The Evanston/Skokie PTA Council’s Legislative Task Force consists of board members, administrators and teachers’ union representatives from both school districts 65 and 202 as well as community members interested in education-funding policy. Our school community seeks to present a unified voice to our elected officials in Springfield and Washington. 

Memo to state senator Jeff Schoenberg, and state representatives Robyn Gabel and Daniel Biss:  Please remind the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) that not all school districts with high property tax bases should be treated the same.

Memo to Gov. Pat Quinn:  Remember that Evanston Township accounted for some 15,000 of your 20,000 + vote margin of victory in November.  And please consider supporting the principles from our “Education First” platform.

The “Education First” concept builds on a Task Force resolution adopted by both boards in 2007. We advocated:  “A substantial increase in state poverty grant funding in response to the fact that the cost of educating low-income children is substantially higher than the cost of educating children from more affluent socioeconomic backgrounds.”

In 2009, both boards adopted the Task Force’s “Education First” resolution calling for: supplemental funding for low-income children; world-class expectations and supports to achieve them; and protection of local district revenues.  

This Dist. 65/202 position has spurred dialogue within ED-RED, the regional school advocacy organization to which our two districts belong.  ED-RED represents 95 suburban districts from Oak Park to Waukegan.   ED-RED calculates that 25% of their member districts would benefit from an increase in funding for low-income students.  We urge our legislators to support significant increases in supplemental funding for low-income children in any funding proposal.

Over 40 percent of students at both Evanston districts are eligible for free and reduced lunch.  Dist. 202 has experienced a 10 percent increase in eligible students since last year.  

The concept of providing additional resources for special populations could advance through reform of the state’s 15-year-old bilingual-funding formula. In 1995, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) may have deserved an outsized share of these funds. Today, ED-RED, other suburban groups and ISBE want a new formula that accounts for the fact that districts outside of Chicago now serve more bilingual students than CPS.

Next month, the Illinois General Assembly is expected to consider Gov. Quinn’s proposal to raise the state income tax for education. Most state governments nationwide pay half the cost of local schools. Ours pays only about one-third of that cost even though the state constitution declares that Springfield “…has the primary responsibility for financing the system of public education.”  

The state’s failure to fulfill this obligation has spurred demands that Springfield provide “more money for education.”  An income tax increase alone won’t resolve the state’s current $13 billion budget deficit, which has left schools statewide shortchanged and bracing for additional cuts.

Springfield’s unwillingness to meet its obligations to schools puts added pressure on property tax funding. Yet, the capacity to generate local revenues varies widely from different communities.   For Districts 65 and 202, state funding problems negatively influence class size issues, preschool programs, and budget planning as well as incurring additional costs that result from borrowing.

For example, Springfield provides supplemental funds for Mandated Categoricals (MCATs)— reimbursements for required special education services and student transportation.  In fiscal year 2011, District 65 has budgeted $7,187,082, and District 202 $1,548,900.  Neither district has yet to receive FY2011 MCAT funds from the state. 

Another funding category is general state aid. (Dist 65 is budgeting $3,846,225; Dist 202, $1,651,893.)  These funds have been paid in a timely fashion, but may vanish if ISBE chooses to target districts with relatively high property tax base in order to provide additional resources for districts with a lower property tax base.

The over-reliance on property tax to fund schools is a huge problem that means scarce resources for the many districts from communities with a low property tax base.  But an across-the-board shift in state funds based on property tax wealth isn’t the answer either. 

The Task Force wants any revenue package/budget balancing bill to both maintain both the existing base foundation level for students in all districts and to provide additional funding for the neediest of students.

These complexities may have to be sorted out by the court system.  In two lawsuits submitted on behalf of CPS, plaintiffs seek injunctive relief against the state of Illinois for its “failed school funding scheme.”  With judicial court orders having forced legislative action in about a dozen states nationwide, it’s entirely plausible that an Illinois judge may one day demand that the General Assembly create a more equitable school funding system.

Ensuring that the governor and General Assembly give serious consideration to our recommendations will be the focus of our next meeting. It takes place on Wed. Jan. 5 at 4:30 in the District 65 board room.  The public is invited to attend.

Bob Heuer chairs the Evanston/Skokie PTA Council’s Legislative Task Force.