The Illinois General Assembly is debating two different approaches to state aid for education this year. 

Last week, Gov. Bruce Rauner announced a plan to fully fund general state aid to local school districts for the first time in seven years, while many Democrats are supporting a plan to rewrite the state aid formula to direct more state money to poorer districts.  

Because of chronic budget problems for the past seven years, the state legislature has not fully funded general state aid for education. Instead, local school districts only received a percentage (last year it was 92 percent) of the amount of general state aid that they were supposed to receive, a practice called proration.

“Every school district in Illinois will do better under the governor’s plan to fully fund the foundation level than they would have under the recent practice of proration, and the vast majority of districts will receive more money than last year,” said State Superintendent of Education Tony Smith in press release announcing Rauner’s plan last week.

The current funding formula is determined by three factors: school enrollment, the number and percentage of school district’s students classified as low-income and local resources available to a district based on property values.

Critics of the existing formula say that not enough money gets sent to poorer school districts and, as a result poor, those districts spend much less per pupil than richer districts.

“We have, by far, the least equitable system in the country,” State Sen. Andy Manar (D-Bunker Hill), the chief sponsor of a bill to change the state funding formula, said at a Senate committee hearing last week. Manar’s bill was approved by the committee and will next be considered by the full state Senate.

Under Rauner’s proposal, all local school districts except for LaGrange-Brookfield District 102 would see modest increases in state aid next year. State aid generally makes up a small proportion of revenue for area local school districts.

Rauner’s proposal is considered unlikely to pass the General Assembly because it is projected to cut state aid to the cash-strapped Chicago Public Schools by about $74 million.

“We have two Chicago-based legislative leaders, and anything that reduces aid to Chicago schools is probably going to hard to pass the General Assembly,” said state Rep. Michael Zalewski (D-Riverside) of Rauner’s proposal. 

Manar, who has been pushing hard in recent years to change the state funding formula to help poorer districts. But his plan has been criticized by those who believe it would take money away from other districts to accomplish that goal. 

Manar has added a provision to his bill that would guarantee no district would receive less state aid — in the first year of his plan — if it becomes law.

Local school superintendents are viewing the goings on in Springfield with a jaundiced eye.

“At least [Rauner’s] proposal includes more money being added to the pot,” said Brookfield-LaGrange Park District 95 Superintendent Mark Kuzniewski. “Manar’s proposal was to redistribute the pot.”

Although District 95 had been projected to get more state aid under a previous version of Manar’s bill, Kuzniewski said he opposes any change that would result in some districts receiving less state aid in the future than they get now.

“Any plan that has winners and losers is not a good plan, even if I’m a winner,” Kuzniewski said.

Zalewski said he favors making state aid for education more equitable and helping poorer districts, but he wants to make sure that the school districts in his legislative district are not hurt by Manar’s bill. 

“As suburban Democrats, we can’t have a situation where we’re forced to do more with less and go to the property taxpayers for more,” Zalewski said.

Zalewski said there needs to be a dedicated revenue source to funnel additional state dollars to education.

“That’s what I ultimately think will happen,” Zalewski said. “Now, where in the world are we going to get new revenue in this environment? I have no idea.”

School superintendents do not have a lot of faith in the state government, which has been unable to agree on a budget for the past nine months. They wonder if the state legislature and the governor will be able to agree on anything.

“There’s a lot of proposals that are being put on the table, but few things become reality due to the stalemate between the governor and the legislators,” said Griff Powell, the co-interim superintendent of Riverside Elementary School District 96. “They’re posturing and I do not want to put a lot of attention into political posturing. My time has to be focused on something that’s going to be real and is going to impact children here in [District] 96.”