Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Senate approves changes to school funding formula, but House vote is unlikely

By Caitlin Rydinsky

A change to the way the state doles out school funding passed in the Senate today, but a House floor vote on the bill is not expected before session is scheduled to adjourn later this week.

Sen. Andy Manar, a Bunker Hill Democrat, sponsored Senate Bill 16, which supporters say could make school funding for poor communities more equalized to wealthier communities. A Senate committee spent months evaluating the current funding formula after questions arose about drastic disparities between schools throughout the state. The plan would put more of the money the state sends to local school districts through a filter that would weight funding more heavily toward factors such as whether students live in poverty or are bilingual learners. It would also consider the need of local districts that have less affluent property tax bases for local funding. “Will there be winners and losers under a new funding formula? Absolutely. But those winners and losers will be based on need and resources and not what their zip code is,” said Democratic Sen. John Sullivan of Rushville. “We’ve all said that around here for years that it ought to be based on not where you live, but what resources you have, and Senate Bill 16 addresses that.”

Republicans argued that the bill opens schools to vulnerability in funding because it would not hold the state to the current per-pupil required funding level, which is known as the “foundation level.” “Statewide, if this bill becomes law, the one objective measuring stick that we have to say, are we funding to the degree that we say we would, will be changed. It would be traumatic,” said Republican Sen. Dale Righter  of Mattoon. “Understand under Senate Bill 16 that number is no longer locked in statute.”

Lawmakers agreed that the state’s education funding formula needs to be changed, but Republicans questioned whether this legislation is the right way to go. Manar said when asked of the debate, “I was quite shocked at their defense of the status quo at the debate and it’s as if (Republicans) are immune or numb to the reality of what is going on in the state today. There’s no reason to pause, there’s no reason.”

Republicans said that they are wary that the process politicized, and some noted that the issue of distributing school funding has always been a difficult one to resolve. “Look at it from our standpoint as the minority party: are we headed in a direction of something political or are we really seriously trying to do something about this? I would like to do something about it. ... Everything that happens around here is political, and I think there’s a little politics involved in this. But I also think there is some sincerity in trying to come up with something better.

Manar that evaluating the issue and drafting a bill took time within the Senate, so he does not expect the House to vote on it in the few days left in the spring session. “The idea that the House is going to turn [it] around in a couple of days is not logical, nor was (the bill) designed to do that. They should take ample time to do it and make the appropriate changes and hopefully get a product in front of both houses as soon as possible.”

The legislation does not currently have a sponsor within the House, although Manar says he has worked with several Democratic representatives during the drafting of the bill. He says he will wait to see what lawmakers in the House propose after they evaluate the plan The legislation would not take effect until July of 2015 and would allow a phase in period to let schools adjust to the newly proposed funding formula.

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