The Rev. Marshall E. Hatch Sr., of New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church, signs a petition calling for Illinois lawmakers to provide more money to school districts.

On a sweltering Sunday in July, the air-conditioned sanctuary echoed with foot stomping and hand clapping. It was a typical Sunday for worshippers at this Baptist church on Chicago’s West Side: singing, sermons and praise dancing. But the pastor took the service on a tangent. “Our children deserve the highest quality education,” piped the Rev. Marshall E. Hatch Sr. of New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church. “Amen,” the church responded.

A giant petition, the girth of an oversized lottery check, flanked Hatch at the pulpit. The petition called for Illinois lawmakers to provide more money to school districts and make the distribution process fairer. He picked up a pen and signed. “How you like my signature?” Hatch joked.

“If they want our vote, they’re going to have to give up the money,” he said of state lawmakers. Hatch then encouraged congregants to sign individual petitions circulating the church. People waved their white postcards heavenward for collection.

Pamela Long, a homemaker, signed. Last year, her five children attended Tilton Elementary, a nearby school with mostly low-income students and test scores far below state averages. “I feel it’s not enough income [in school.] I’d like to see the children getting out and learning more about the environment,” said Long, who has since moved and enrolled her children in another school in the neighborhood.

More than 100 churches that day participated in a grassroots drive led by A+ Illinois, a coalition of dozens of organizations around the state that want to increase state spending for public education and to more evenly distribute those funds. It’s the latest effort in the long-elusive goal of school funding reform, one tangled in red tape, where politics and policy clash, and observers say politicians can tout their support of education in ambiguous terms.

While school funding reform attempts have been going on in earnest for more than two decades, organizers and activists are grasping to a glimmer of hope for next year. The tipping point has been in the making, reform advocates say: The stakeholders have changed over the past few years, and there is significantly more consensus and cohesion among them.

School administrators and farmers, civic organizations and nonpartisan groups are singing the same chorus: The current system of public education funding is flawed. No longer is the concern a racially coded, so-called Chicago issue. The debate has crisscrossed ethnic, socioeconomic and geographic lines. Even affluent districts have had to go hat-in-hand to voters asking for tax increases.

With school districts across Illinois clamoring for more dollars, the state’s gubernatorial candidates offering ways to generate billions of additional dollars for education and some political heavyweights still committed to a controversial tax swap plan, the stars may never be more aligned for school funding reform.

The reformers’ ability to capitalize on these opportunities during the next several weeks and months might make the difference between success in 2007 and four more years of frustration. “The odds are long and yet they’re a convergence of forces that make it more likely that we’ll finally get started in 2007—more likely than at any time in the past couple of decades,” said Jim Broadway, publisher of State School News Service Newsletter and a longtime reform watcher.

A+ Illinois is using the bully pulpit to show the range of support. Events like visiting Chicago churches are examples of reaching people directly. Leaders say they are still determining how to deliver the petitions.

A+ Illinois campaign manager Bindu Batchu said the coming months will be used for traveling around the state and doing public activities. The goal is that pressured politicians will act because any change in taxes must be done through the legislature.

The consensus among advocates is a change in tax structure is needed so local property taxes are not the prime determiner of the money schools receive. They also say the state needs to put more in the pot.

After the July service at his church, Hatch retreated to his office. The five schools that ring around his church in the 4300 block of West Washington Boulevard are in tough times and under performing, he said. “For church people, it’s a part of what we do –¦ the civil rights issue of our time. Children are languishing in schools under funded.”

He welcomed the petition drive but challenges organizers to call gubernatorial debates that exclusively deal with education. “Plot it right down in the gubernatorial race,” Hatch said.

Both Democratic Gov. Blagojevich and his Republican challenger, state Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka, have offered school finance reform packages. But A+ Illinois gave both candidates low marks for the long-term viability of their plans. Advocates said the ideas put forth are a start in fixing the education funding system, even if the proposals are flawed.

There have been a few efforts, albeit fruitless, to enact change. In 1992, a constitutional amendment went to voters that said the state should pay for half of public education, as implied by the constitution. Of the $20 billion spent on public education in Illinois during the 2004-2005 school year, 29 percent came from the state, about 8 percent came from the federal government, and roughly 63 percent came from local sources, mostly property taxes. The amendment’s intention was to legally force legislators to turn the tide on reform. Sixty percent approval was needed; it received slightly more than 58 percent. In 1997, former Gov. Jim Edgar introduced a bill that would’ve raised the state income tax with the proceeds going into the education coffers, but the bill died in the Illinois Senate.

A bill known in shorthand as HB 750 or SB 750 is the most recent. It called for a 25 percent decrease in property taxes, a relief of $2.5 billion statewide. In its place the state would kick in new revenue with an income tax increase from 3 percent to 5 percent, as well as increasing the sales tax base.

This plan is the brainchild of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability. The bill never went to a vote in Springfield. “We’re in a holding pattern until after the election,” said Ralph Martire, executive director of the nonprofit. He said lawmakers representing white rural communities and those representing urban centers need to bridge the cultural divide, which is racial and geographic, by working together on the same issue.

Aware of the challenges, A+ Illinois is not putting all its weight on that bill and is open to other legislation.

But state Rep. David Miller, a Democrat with a district office in south suburban Dolton, said he plans to reintroduce HB 750 after January. Something is better than nothing on the table, he said. “If you don’t like 750, come up with a solution. –¦ [I’ve] heard so many politicians running say, ‘We want to look at the funding formula.’ What’s stopping you with changing it?” Miller said.

The time is over for his cohorts to say they want more information on school funding, Miller said. “You can’t say you want to study the problem again. You can study ’til blue in the face.”

State Sen. James Meeks, an independent representing parts of the South Side and south suburbs, first introduced HB 750 in February 2005. He said passage will require three political heavy weights—Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, state House Speaker Michael J. Madigan, and state Senate President Emil Jones Jr.—to take the lead. “They control the leverage to the lawmakers to get it passed. If those three get on board, I’m all sold,” Meeks said.

Earlier this summer, in a speech, Daley said: “Local property taxpayers should not be forced to bear the burden of education funding. Education is a state responsibility, and the state should provide a majority of the funding –¦ I will continue to support a measure that guarantees a lowering of the local property taxes in return for a guaranteed increase in state funding from year to year by raising the state income tax.”

A spokeswoman for Jones said the senator supports the 750 bill and that he believes there is an overreliance on property taxes in funding schools.

Steve Brown, a spokesman for Madigan, stressed that the House leader would need to see “a real strong coalition” behind the bill before he’d even think about supporting the measure. “Before he’d walk the plank again,” Brown said, “you’re going to need a bipartisan coalition.”

Some reform advocates are confident that such a coalition is there, waiting to be mobilized. Miller said downstate groups and people from the Illinois Farm Bureau, an A+ Illinois member, have helped elevate this issue as one that affects more than just majority-black school districts.

Dennis Vercler, spokesman for the Bloomington-based Illinois Farm Bureau, has been involved in school reform since 1987. He said farmers first got involved because many had been on local school boards and their property tax base began to erode, putting a strain on the agricultural community.

Reform success will require a truly statewide effort, he said. “This is a very tough thing to accomplish. The politics of this issue is very difficult because it involves tax increases,” Vercler said.

Although he stops short of predicting 2007 as the year, he said that reform is “inevitable,” and will be done by going to candidate forums, submitting questions to newspaper editorial boards and community organizing.

Another lesson is that this is a grassroots, not lobbying, effort. A+ Illinois has one full-time organizer on board and may bring on others to canvass the state. Public support met with public outrage will garner change, officials say. “If we can show the public is in favor –¦ then that pressure is put on elected officials; they will have to respond,” said Scott Goldstein, vice president of policy and planning for the Metropolitan Planning Council.

In an attempt to keep the funding issue on the radar is a rally on Oct. 14 at the Thompson Center in Chicago in support of school funding reform. Organizers have scheduled it on a Saturday to lure families to come out.

Sharon Voliva, of the Better Funding for Better Schools Coalition, is in the process of getting all state legislators on record about their position on school funding. The results will be posted online by mid-September, in time for the November elections.

Voliva is also organizing school funding caucuses in every school district around the state. The purpose is to get those people to visit their local legislators on this subject until the end of the spring legislative session or until the bill passes—whichever comes first.

Two goals of reform are finding other sources outside of property taxes to fund schools—primarily by boosting the state’s contribution—and raising the minimum level of spending per child.

The current minimum amount, called the foundation level, is $5,334. A state funding advisory board has recommended that the minimum be raised to $6,405. The board said this amount is needed for school districts to have basic resources to meet state learning standards. “The foundation level is not an ending point but a very, very important starting point to ensure a high-quality education,” said Bachu of A+ Illinois.

School districts in Glencoe, Winnetka and Kenilworth spent $12,000 to $15,000 per child during 2004-2005. In north suburban Lake County, Rondout School District 72 spent more than $22,000 per child, ranking second in the state. Higher per pupil expenditures are primarily the result of higher home values. In each of these districts, local resources—mostly from property taxes—account for more than 90 percent of the district budget.

“No one believes funding alone will accomplish all of the things that we aspire to as a society in terms of what goes on in the classroom. But we know it’s an important piece of the puzzle, and we’ve come together to mobilize our constituents and engage the public in a belief that we have it within ourselves to make a significant change,” said Jerry Stermer, president of Voices for Illinois Children.

A former superintendent in downstate Dixon, state Rep. Jerry Mitchell said he would not sponsor a reform bill unless there is buy-in at the top. He, too, can attest to the regional diversity of problems with school funding. Mitchell has been dismayed by the lack of movement toward reform.

When he came to the legislature 12 years ago, Mitchell said he naively thought something would have been done by now. “It was a surprise to me that people don’t see that we’re trying to educate kids on the back of property owners. To me educating a child is all of our responsibilities. I’d be happy to pay more income or sales tax,” Mitchell said.

The real question here is: Will most Illinois residents be happy to pay higher income or sales taxes?

eformers defuse this issue by emphasizing the property tax decrease in the HB 750 and showing that any increase will not result in an astronomical amount.

Frustration has grown over the years on reform, said Broadway of State School News Service Newsletter. “This election year causes that frustration to potentially have some direction to move unlike all other election years. Everyone comes out on education … but they’re always nonspecific,” he said.

With a Democratic governor and Democratic-controlled legislature, conventional wisdom said reform would happen after 2003. But there has been little movement. “For a very long time we thought this was either a problem caused by Republicans or Democrats. It’s a problem exacerbated by apathy and lack of guts. Politicians, no matter how good they sound on education when they’re running –¦ they are interested in getting reelected,” Voliva said.

Forest Park Schools Superintendent Randolph Tinder has all but given up hope. “You can’t fix the system. It has to be thrown away and something new put in its place. I still don’t believe the General Assembly has the courage to do that,” he said.

Tinder’s property-rich, west suburban district gets 83 percent of its funding from property taxes. Nonetheless, officials there have asked voters for more money.

Before coming to the Chicagoland area, Tinder led schools downstate in economically depressed areas. He was part of the educational reform bandwagon as chairman of a committee that unsuccessfully sued the state to push school reform.

These days Tinder views reform from the sidelines and doubts change will happen. The political landscape is the same today as it was a decade ago, he said. “Everybody is ‘education first’ in their campaign, and, for most folks, it’s lip service,” he said.

Angelica Herrera helped research this article.