Claim of ‘record investment’ in schools is hollow - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Claim of ‘record investment’ in schools is hollow

Mary Ellen Guest is campaign manager for A+ Illinois, which is a coalition of hundreds of organizations and thousands of individuals across the state working to improve the funding and quality of Illinois schools.

It’s back-to-school time, and parents across Illinois are scrambling to fill their kids’ backpacks with enough notebooks, folders and pencils to get them through the school year.

But last Thursday, Gov. Rod Blagojevich approved a budget that will leave local property taxpayers scrambling to finance their share of the school-funding bill or face another round of cuts in the classroom. In many Illinois districts, back to school will mean back to another year of crumbling school buildings, overcrowded classrooms and outdated books and computers.

Illinois leaders boast that this budget is a win-win for schools, a “record investment” in education. However, the only winners under this budget are those same leaders who will take credit for improving school funding without taking real action to fix our broken school-funding system or strengthen state-supported services vital to the well-being of children and families.

As my grandmother would say: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. This budget ignores the core problems plaguing Illinois schools, such as the too-heavy dependence on local property taxes, the disparity in resources available to rich and poor communities, the chronic funding shortfalls in districts across the state, denying many children access to a great education. This budget avoids any attempt to repair Illinois ’ inadequate and unfair revenue system, leaving us unable to meet the basic needs of children and families.

The money promised to schools will be subject to the whims of next year’s General Assembly, which goes back to the budget drawing board in the spring. Without a permanent funding source, our schools must return to Springfield with their hands open, hoping for more than just pocket change.

Nearly $600 million for schools does sound impressive, but does little to reverse the growing dependence on local property taxes as a primary funding source for education.

Since 2001, the state’s share of school funding has dropped from 39 percent down to 32 percent, forcing school districts to either raise revenues through property taxes or balance their budgets by cutting learning programs. To make up for the state’s shortfall, the amount homeowners and other local property taxpayers have spent on schools jumped from $9.7 billion in 2001 to $12.2 billion in 2005 (the last year data was available), a 26 percent increase in just four years. That kind of spike will look familiar to anyone who’s opened a property tax bill lately.

For years, Illinois has been hovering near the bottom among all states for its share of school funding. This budget threatens to put us dead last.

In terms of adequacy, this package provides a bump in the foundation level — the minimum per-pupil funding amount recommended by education experts — but still falls nearly $1,000 short of meeting current needs. For a typical elementary school of 400 students, that’s $400,000 shy of minimum standards, not counting the additional resources needed to educate children in poverty or with special needs.

So when your lawmakers and the governor announce the “biggest increase” for schools without an increase in taxes, take another look at your property tax bill. Better yet, ask a teacher at your local school how many more children will be squeezed into her classroom this fall, or how many classes and activities have been eliminated to balance a shrinking budget. By failing to enact comprehensive reform, we continue to jeopardize the future of hundreds of thousands of children.

Illinois cannot solve this crisis without a sustainable, fair and adequate system of raising state revenues.

The good news is that voters have demonstrated a willingness to pay more in income or sales taxes to invest in education.

The bad news is that state leaders just squandered a golden opportunity to make school-funding reform a reality this year.

What now? With another election next fall, candidates will soon come looking for your vote. Do your homework. Ask what they have done — and will do — to truly reform school funding and quality so that every child has access to a quality education. Ask them how they plan to put Illinois on sound fiscal footing. Tell them your vote depends on it.

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