Mt. Vernon Register-News

March 23, 2013

Who really gets a 'free lunch'?

By SEN. DAVE LUECHTEFELD
The Register-News

---- — Chicago Democrats in Springfield have said downstate schools are getting a “free lunch” when it comes to education funding. They charge that our schools are getting more than their fair share of education dollars.

The rationale for this claim is that Chicago schools pay more toward their pension system than do downstate school districts. It was a term coined by the House Speaker for the obvious purpose of shifting costs away from the state and force downstate taxpayers to assume financial responsibility for the state’s massive pension liabilities — liabilities that accumulated during his more than 30 years of leading Illinois House Democrats.

My colleagues and I decided to take an in-depth look at the issue to see if the claims of a “free lunch” were legitimate. They were not.

Our report found that pension payments from the state to downstate school districts tell only a small part of the story. In fact, if you look at overall school funding in Illinois, the inescapable conclusion is that it is the Chicago Public Schools that are being served a super-sized meal of state support.

The point of this was not to ignite a regional war against the Chicago Public Schools. Instead, it was to put to rest a distracting and misleading argument that threatens to derail the already difficult challenge of finding a solution to the state’s massive underfunding of our teacher retirement system.

Yet, as we looked at the facts, we discovered disturbing trends that all Illinois taxpayers should be aware of. For the past decade, we have seen the state’s General State Aid Formula undermined by a massive shift in the way in which resources are allocated to local school districts.

As a lifelong educator, I know that our General State Aid Formula was intended to be a “resource equalizer” that assures all students have access to a base of state support. Yet, we have discovered that since 2000, the formula has been almost completely restyled to channel money into specific districts, rather than meet its intended purpose of equalizing resources.

Amazingly, there has never been any public debate over this shift in priorities. In fact, it has occurred out of sight of legislators and the public. Bureaucratic decision makers have quietly made changes in how state funding is allocated. The changes have reduced the state’s base Foundation Level grants from almost 90 percent of the state aid formula to just over 50 percent today.

At the same time, Poverty Grant funding has soared by 432 percent and the obscure Property Tax Extension Limitation Law adjustment has shot up a jaw-dropping 1,267 percent.

The deeper one digs into the figures, the worse it becomes. PTELL, intended as a modest adjustment to offset some of the effects of property tax caps, has grown into a $629 million program that channels 49 percent of its money into one school district — Chicago.

Changes that were never approved or even debated by the legislature have skewed the poverty grant formula to create huge discrepancies in the value placed on children in poverty.

I understand that children in poverty require extra resources to reach their potential. As a teacher, I saw it firsthand. And, I also know that schools with high concentrations of poverty students face additional challenges.

But, is it really fair that Mt. Vernon Township High School District 201 receives about $1,300 to educate a student in poverty, while the Chicago schools get more than $2,500 for a student in similar circumstances? Is it really half as costly to educate a poor student in Mt. Vernon as a student in Chicago?

I have only scratched the surface. Similar discrepancies exist in Special Education funding, with Early Childhood funding and even with the distribution of Personal Property Replacement Taxes.

We began this examination in the hopes of refuting a false claim about the downstate “free lunch.” But, in doing so, we uncovered a far more troubling situation.

We cannot build a base of support for public education with an “equalization formula” that is taking Illinois down a path of increasingly unequal treatment of our students.

The facts make it clear. Illinois needs an open, honest and thorough debate over how education resources are allocated.

A link to the report is at www.senategop.state.il.us/Portals/0/Docs/Cost-Shift-FINAL.pdf