Students at Kennedy Middle School are the lowest-achieving students in Rockford Public Schools, based on the results of standardized tests, and are in the bottom 5 percent in the state of Illinois.
Yet things are turning around at Kennedy because, thanks to a state grant, the school district has been able to invest in technology, teacher training and other resources. Students in all three grade levels at Kennedy scored in the 99th percentile in the country for reading growth, according to student academic progress scores.
It’s schools like Kennedy that can benefit most from the school financing reform proposal known as Senate Bill 1, which has passed both chambers in the Illinois General Assembly and is on its way to the desk of Gov. Bruce Rauner.
SB1 uses an evidence-based model to tackle financing for schools, something at which the state of Illinois has been woefully inept. Illinois ranks last in state funding for public education despite the constitutional requirement that “the state has the primary responsibility for financing the system of public education.”
The evidence-based approach relies on research and best practices. It determines what educational practices will lead to student success and how much it would cost to adopt those practices. Then comes the task of divvying up money among Illinois’ 852 public school districts.
No school district would get less money than it is getting today. SB1 doles out whatever new dollars become available for education.
Money cannot fix all educational challenges, but it does matter.
Research shows low-income students such as those at Kennedy (78 percent are considered low income) benefit most from additional dollars so the formula in SB1 favors those students. Rockford, with 58 percent low-income students districtwide, would receive an extra $5.1 million if the governor signs SB1.
Don’t bet on it.
Although the governor likes most of what’s in SB1, there’s a portion that he dislikes so much that he may veto the bill altogether or use his amendatory veto power to change the bill.
Rauner objects to what he and other opponents of SB1 consider a “bailout” for Chicago schools. Again, SB1 ensures no school district gets less money so grant money Chicago schools have been getting has been rolled into the funding formula.
Then there’s the issue of pensions. Chicago Public Schools is the only school district in the state that has to cover its own teacher pension payments. SB1 includes additional money for those pensions. Without the pension money, Chicago schools would get less than they receive under the current formula.
Although we question the pension portion for Chicago, it’s not enough of a concern to diminish our support for the bill. Also, we’re a bit tired of Chicago, a world-class city that still attracts corporate headquarters, being cast as an evil entity. We want Chicago schoolchildren to succeed as much as we want students in other areas of the state to succeed and we think a new funding formula can help make that happen.
SB1 is the best shot Illinois has at reworking a financing system that has created huge disparities among school districts and does not help educate children. It’s a bill that has been revised several times since Sen. Andy Manar first proposed it a few years ago.
A study by The Education Trust in 2015 showed that Illinois school districts with the greatest number of students living in poverty received nearly 20 percent less state and local money than affluent districts. Your ZIP code should not determine the quality of education your child receives.
SB1 would give state money to the students and schools who need it most. That’s how schools should be funded.
Illinois lawmakers have talked about changing the school financing formula for decades. If SB1 does not become law, how much longer will Illinoisans have to wait for a more equitable solution to the way Illinois pays for education?
Ideally, the governor will sign the bill as is so that students all across the state can have access to the type of resources that have helped Kennedy Middle School improve.