Wednesday, May 20, 2009

School funding reform

by Jamey Dunn

Shortly before passing the capital plan, the Senate debated a proposal that would drastically change the tax structure for the state and possibly resolve a pending lawsuit. The bill, which has been considered in different versions for the last seven sessions, would raise the personal income tax from 3 percent to 5 percent and expand the sales tax to specific services.

Sen. James Meeks, a Chicago Democrat, classified some of the services as “luxury,” including limousine rentals, massages and pet grooming. But the bill also includes movies and movie rental, taxis and bowling. It would also double the earned income tax credit to protect low-income families and provide property tax relief for all.

Meeks said the intent of the measure is to create more revenue for Illinois schools and ensure schools receive equal funding because the state would take over most of the responsibility. Currently, school districts heavily rely on local property taxes, so funding can vary greatly among districts depending on how much revenue the local tax generates.

He added that after giving more money to schools and higher education, providing tax relief and putting funds toward capital projects, a large chunk of money (Meeks estimates around $4 billion) would be left over to help plug the state’s budget deficit.

The Chicago Urban League filed a lawsuit last August against the state and the Illinois State Board of Education over the current school funding system. The lawsuit was based on the 2003 Illinois Civil Rights Act and claims that Illinois’ education funding system results in racial discrimination because the student populations of many under-funded schools are predominantly minorities. The Urban League is seeking an injunction, which would force the state to change the system.

Meeks said that it is time for the General Assembly to reform school funding before possibly being ordered by a court to take action. His measure advanced through committee, and he said he plans to call it for a floor vote before session adjourns at the end of the month. “It would be a shame if the court has to mandate Illinois to do what Illinois should have been doing all along,” he said.

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