Mt. Vernon Register-News

Opinion

March 23, 2013

Who really gets a 'free lunch'?

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.

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