On episode two of Ready Set Gov, we’re joined by Linda Lenz, a veteran Chicago education writer, who walks us through the bipartisan education reform bill passed in Springfield. We talk about what it means for Illinois taxpayers and students alike.


Q&A with Linda Lenz

Solomon Lieberman (BGA’s VP of Strategy): Before we tackle the new school, let’s review the old school. So after decades of fighting and too many special committees and task forces to count, we’ve got a new model for school funding in Illinois. Can you give us the backstory on the much maligned and soon to be old system before we get into the new?

Linda: The old system was an over-reliance on the property taxes, so there were huge differentials. It was always a political fight about how much can we afford and everybody was out to support their own district. With the property taxes, there were huge wealth differences among the districts … and that really was a disservice to kids.

It’s not that the state didn’t try. They had a couple lawsuits that went to the Supreme Court. And the court said, “No, this is a legislative matter.” There was a referendum that came within a hair of actually passing and that we would have a way to rewrite the Constitution in regard to education and none of those things worked. The dominance of property taxes dates back to the mid-1800s when state funding for schools started and they start out saying, “Oh yeah we’re going to have states fund these schools.” And pretty soon it was over the property taxes because the states didn’t want to approve all that money and they didn’t have control over it either, so it’s a long history to get over.

Solomon: Let’s move to this new system. What is the goal of this new school funding approach that was passed in August?

Linda: I’m going to read this, it’s from one of the architects of the legislation, it’s ambitious: “Overall, the goal is to create a K-12 funding system with the capacity to provide an education of sufficient quality for all students to graduate from high school, be ready for college or a career, irrespective of income, race, geography or ethnicity.”

Solomon: So what we previously had was an attempt at, let’s say, equality. There was a school funding formula that was meant to ensure every student got to the same minimum level of dollars, but what we’re moving toward now is equity, where based on the situation of the student, they get an adequate experience to get where they need to go. Is that a fair way of breaking it down?

Linda: Yeah, the big newsmaker here is this move to adequacy, so that there is some kind of standard that you can think of when you’re funding as opposed to just pulling things out of the hat. The formula has 27 different factors that go into a high-quality school system and one of the first things that the school districts will do is come up with this program of, “What are the programs we need that will be adequate to educate the kids to these particular levels that we want them to reach,” and now they’re just getting the money. They’re not telling them to do any programs but they are basing the resources in something that makes sense. Hopefully, this will no longer be a political decision.

Solomon: This is evidence-based?

Linda: Absolutely, it’s the evidence-based and everybody in the state had a chance to weigh in on this. This brings benefits to practically every school district in the state and maybe it’s a bridge that connects the city, downstate and the suburbs. It’s really pretty exciting.

Solomon: When you talk about these 27 funding factors to get to these adequacy targets that follows proven evidence, are there examples of how this could be applied in classrooms?

Linda: Yeah, sure. Research shows that class sizes that are really small in the primary grades can have a demonstrable impact on student learning. We also know that poverty can be a big drag on achievement. So that’s a second, you know, factor be to be considered.

Solomon: So we’re talking about class size and low income as factors?

Linda: Right. When the state is looking at how much money to provide to a particular school district, they will provide funding to support one teacher for every 15 low-income students in grades kindergarten through third. For the non low-income students, the state would provide one teacher for every 20 students. So they’re beginning to address those particular needs that we know can make a difference. The state is not telling the school district what to do. It is only providing the resources that will be needed for the identified programs.

Solomon: Moving on, can we talk a little bit about money and about the revenue side? When you think about costs to districts, how will that move from here to hit those targets?

Linda: Right. Once a school district has chosen its program, the state has funding amounts assigned to all these different 27 factors. So they’ll come up with a budget, but then they also are going to apply a filter to take care of some big issues such as: What is overall student enrollment? What are the number of students in the district who have special needs or bilingual education? What is the poverty level and what are the differences in cost of living? So this is an attempt to really produce equity not equality. We’re not having equally funded school districts, but instead we’ll have equitably funded school districts.

Solomon: Will districts lose money? That’s been something we’ve heard concerns about, that some districts will suffer as a result of this. How have they reconciled that?

Linda: Historically, that was what the politics failed over because we would have to take money away from some school district to give it to a poor school district and that’s why we never saw this cycle ended.

Solomon: Right. So for example, I’m in Lake Bluff and due to property wealth we are able to in this community produce a per-pupil rate of $17,000 to $18,000 per pupil. But then you go west to Beardstown, you have $7,000 $8,000 maybe per pupil based on what’s available in property wealth.

So how has this bill insured that the wealthy district isn’t going to have to suffer as a result of it? What have they put in place?

Linda: The way they have guaranteed that is that you don’t lose money unless you’re enrollment declines. The base funding each fiscal year will be what was spent the previous fiscal year. So in the fiscal year 2018, the base funding will be the state money that came through in fiscal year 2017. And so as the state provides more money for these programs that becomes baked into the base funding system. It’s not something that can come and go each year. So both of these augur towards making sure that no one has to lose funding.

Solomon: Of course, then we’ll come to the question of how they find this additional money, right?

Linda: Yeah, and it’s a ton of money. I mean it’s $6.2 billion that they say they need to fully fund this particular system. And to put that in perspective: the whole state right now spends $11 billion, so looking for another $6 (billion) is going to be a challenge.

Solomon: Okay. So we’ve talked about a school system and a school-funding model that’s been around for centuries. We’ve gotten into the weeds a little bit about how this new model gets to an equitable approach and that doing so will require, you know, several billion dollars and in such a way that it won’t penalize any districts that are already, maybe flush is a fair word.

That’s a lot of hurdles to get over. That’s a lot of politics to manage. So why now? How did we get to this place now? Can we just look at the government action and inaction a little? How did we get here and why are we here?

Linda: It’s been something that’s been developing over a goodly number of years and I think it starts with non-profit organizations who are focused on policy, particularly fiscal policy. Just really digging into this trying different models and beginning to move toward this evidence-based model. So you have those non-profit organizations, then you have state legislators, some who are really committed to equity in trying to fix this system, and they started working with the non-profit organizations and the research.

Solomon: The Governor had a reform commission, right?

Linda: Yeah. But also, there are organizations that represent the employees, like the teachers and the administrators. Well, slowly, all these factors came together and they had really wide outreach throughout the state to get comments from different people. And you’re right, the governor created the funding commission. And near the end, with the budget turmoil, the four legislative leaders said, “You know, this has gotta go. If we have to keep this, otherwise you’re going to have more problems with your budget.”

Solomon: There are going to be some challenges here, so how will we know that it worked? What will success look like in a little while?

Linda: I’m going to read something for this one as well: “After the model becomes fully funded, stakeholders can expect to see growth in student test scores, improved school climates with reduced disciplinary problems, reduced drop-out rates with corresponding increases in high school graduation, and college enrollment rates, and a K-12 system that appropriately serves the social-emotional needs of students from diverse backgrounds.”

That’s pretty aspirational, but I think that’s worthy to put out there and the cynics be damned.

Solomon: Yeah. You know, the city, the school groups. They have plenty of metrics and outcomes to measure this stuff.

Linda: Absolutely. There’s so much more transparency with this new funding formula, because parents can go in and see, “Oh, how is our budget? Was it set up to cover poor and low-income kids in the primary grades?” and so on. And then, not only had your district budgeted in an intelligent way, it’s them then implementing those programs in an intelligent way.

Solomon: Is it fair to say, with a new bill like this, it’s not time for parents to stand back and say, “Oh, we’re fine now?” It’s actually time to get more engaged?

Linda: Yes. That’s a really good point because there may be a tendency to have that happen. But this is so complicated, there are so many moving parts. There is a profusion for districts giving reports to the state, but I’m always nervous about the reports. They don’t necessarily end up to anything. So there really need to be people on the ground, who understand this. They don’t have to understand exactly how it works, but they just need to look at what the school district is doing, in terms of how it puts its budget together, and then how those programs have panned out.

Solomon: You’ve been watching this unfold for a long time now and here we are. Do you have optimism for this new program? Will it change our results here in the state?

Linda: Yeah, I’m optimistic. I’m not wildly optimistic. But I think that this bill is just so well-crafted to address the issues out there. It’s going to be, you know, so much better than what we’ve had in the past.

What’s also interesting is that, usually, in the fight over Chicago Public Schools funding critics would say, “Oh we’re, you know, putting that money into a black hole.” Meaning that they weren’t getting anything accomplished, and there are probably some other interpretations of that phrase as well. But there is recent research that shows that Chicago Public Schools are actually doing really well with their students in terms of moving them forward. So there’s some optimism there. What also factors in is the question of, do you want to go to a school that’s diverse or do you wanna go to school where there is economic diversity? I mean there are certainly factors which go beyond this particular law.