Political will

According to school funding policy experts, Illinois can both increase the amount of money it provides for public education and distribute it in a way to close the funding gap between rich and poor districts.

They’re confident it can be done in Illinois because several other states have already done it.

In its “Funding Gap 2005” report, which was issued last December, the Education Trust recognized several states for making progress towards closing their respective school funding gaps. It’s a distinction that Illinois has yet to claim.

Each time the Education Trust has conducted its annual funding gap analysis, Illinois had one of the largest in the country. And, though myriad challenges stand in the way, Illinois can achieve school finance reform, said Ross Wiener, principal partner at the Education Trust, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. “Once you’re decided to do it, to make it work, it’s just a matter of politicians getting behind it—and the public demanding it,” he said.

Indiana was among the states recognized by the Education Trust. If Indiana can narrow its gap, Illinois can, too, said Kevin Carey, the research and policy manager at Education Sector, an education policy think tank based in Washington, D.C. “Back in the early seventies, Indiana had a school funding system not that different from the one Illinois has right now,” he said.

To fix the nix, Indiana cut local property taxes and nearly doubled the state’s sales tax. Indiana also restricted the ability of local school districts to raise their property tax rates, and established a formula that tries to set the same rate for every local school district. “It was a basic sort of swap, where you cut property taxes to bring in state revenues,” Carey said. “The idea is that, once the system is more funded at the state level, it gives you more ability, from the state’s perspective, to distribute money equally—and make sure that local revenues aren’t held hostage to differences in local property wealth.”

“Essentially, the less [property] wealth you have, the more money you get from the state,” he said.

Kentucky raised its sales tax and other taxes to generate more money for schools. Michigan used its cigarette tax and other revenues. Thanks to expanding economies, both Kansas and New Jersey were able to increase school funding without raising taxes. “Because businesses were making money, individuals were making money and had more money to spend; sales tax revenues went up,” said Molly A. Hunter, the managing director at National Access Network, an organization tracking school finance litigation and education spending issues nationwide.

Kansas raised nearly three quarters of a billion dollars in a four-year period, Hunter said.

“Illinois has one of the worst school funding systems in the country, [but] it’s not as if people don’t know how to solve the problem,” Carey said “I don’t think Illinois’ problem is a lack of solutionsl it’s a lack of political will to implement solutions.”

Carey believes Illinois should raise the state income tax as a way to provide more money to poor districts and close the funding gap.

But that’s easier said than done.

Gov. Rod Blagojevich has held firm to a “no-tax” pledge since his election in 2002, and he doesn’t appear to be wavering. His latest proposal to sell or lease the state lottery, adding billions of dollars in education funding, did not involve a tax increase.

Likewise, state Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka, Blagojevich’s opponent in this fall’s gubernatorial election, has unveiled a plan to add billions in education money—also without increasing taxes.

But school finance policy analysts warn that what may have worked in one state may not necessarily work for Illinois.

“You can’t just look around and find a good state and say, ‘Well, that’s what we’re going to do,’ because each state has its own political situation, its own history, its own current situation,” Hunter said. “I wouldn’t say go look at those [states] and go do that—it might be like trying to put a number 10 shoe on a number 11 foot.”

Comments are closed.