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
are scrambling to fill their kids’
backpacks with enough notebooks, folders and pencils to get them through the
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
districts, back to school will mean
back to another year of crumbling school buildings, overcrowded classrooms and
outdated books and computers.
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
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
’ 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
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.
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.
solve this crisis without a sustainable, fair and adequate system of raising
The good news is that voters have
demonstrated a willingness to pay more in income or sales taxes to invest in
The bad news is that state leaders
just squandered a golden opportunity to make school-funding reform a reality
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
on sound fiscal footing. Tell them your vote depends on it.