Since 1970, activists and supportive politicians have been pushing for a better way to fund Illinois schools. The current system leaves the poorest districts with the least property wealth out in the cold. Credit: Courtesy of Shutterstock


Springfield’s latest battle over education funding has roots stretching back to 1970. That’s when a bunch of tired delegates to Illinois’ Constitutional Convention settled on compromise language proposed by the late Dawn Clark Netsch to describe the state’s responsibility for funding public schools:

“The state has the primary responsibility for financing the system of public educational institutions and services.”

To most people, that certainly sounds like state government should shoulder most of the expense of public K-12 schooling. But in reality, local districts still bear much of the load, creating disparities that disproportionately hurt children of color, but also impact non-minority rural districts downstate.

Illinois has for years ranked at or near the bottom nationally for state school funding. Plus, poorer districts get hit harder: A report from the Education Law Center shows that for every dollar of state funds sent to a wealthier Illinois district, a poorer one gets only 90 cents.

Meanwhile, the language from 1970 was not language a court could enforce. Delegates knew that at the time, but hoped the wording would inspire lawmakers to take action on the matter.

Advocates are still waiting for that legislative fix, and some have tried to get the courts involved. (A detailed review of those lawsuits is here.) In 2008, the Chicago Urban League became the latest, citing a civil rights basis for its suit.

The most recent major change to the state’s funding formula came in 1997, when the legislature changed how it allocates supplemental money to high-poverty school districts. The group Designs for Change successfully lobbied to guarantee that high-poverty schools in Chicago would continue to receive school-based discretionary funds that schools could decide on their own how to spend. The 1997 law also created the Education Funding Advisory Board (EFAB), which recommends a per-pupil amount for general state aid. However, the state legislature has only funded education up to the EFAB-recommended level once, in the 2002 school year.

See “‘Have not’ districts push for equity,” Catalyst April 1992 and “Big plans await money from Springfield,” Catalyst December 1997


The most recent grassroots efforts to push for change peaked between 2007 and 2009. The A+ Illinois Coalition took the first shot when it tried unsuccessfully to push former Gov. Rod Blagojevich into an income tax increase to give schools more money. Later, the Rev. James Meeks, then a state senator and now chair of the Illinois State Board of Education, led the charge and organized a two-day boycott of Chicago Public Schools to push a bill that would have swapped property tax relief for an income tax increase. Even students got on board and began organizing. Meeks’ bill gained surprising traction and passed the Senate before dying in the House.

The same year, the Chicago Urban League tried a new legal tactic in the fight to change how Illinois funds schools. Its lawsuit charged that Illinois’ state education funding method violated minority students’ civil rights because they disproportionately live in the poorest districts with the least property wealth. Chicago Public Schools filed an amicus brief in the case, which is still in court.

See “CPS mulling support for Urban League lawsuit,” Catalyst November 2008


In 2010, Springfield set the “foundation amount” of state aid to schools at $6119 per pupil. But when federal stimulus funds ran out, so too did the additional money that had flowed to schools–once again hitting the poorest districts hardest.

Gov. Rauner recently unveiled a proposal that would add $55 million to K-12 spending and fully fund the foundation level for the first time since 2011. But due to declining enrollment, Chicago Public Schools would be hit with a $74 million cut. (Without the additional funds, CPS would lose $134 million.) Rauner’s proposal does not make any changes to the way the state funds schools.

Senate Democrats, led by Sen. Andy Manar (D-Bunker Hill), have proposed more radical changes. Senate Bill 231, the latest version of Manar’s proposal, would make two big changes statewide: give more state money to districts with less property wealth, and collapse most of the state’s money into one weighted formula similar to student-based budgeting. For Chicago, Manar’s bill would swap the block grant in place since 1997 for state money to fund CPS teacher pensions. Last week the bill made it out of committee and will be voted on by the Senate later this session. But like Manar’s earlier bills, this one is likely to die in the House.

Two proposals that would require constitutional amendments are also in play: House Speaker Michael Madigan’s bid to change the language around education funding, and a graduated income tax proposal sponsored by Rep. Lou Lang (D-Skokie). The current Illinois Constitution bans a graduated income tax. Though the income tax bill is not school-specific, most experts agree school funding won’t be fixed without new revenue. “That’s our best hope,” said Rod Estvan, education policy analyst for Access Living. But he’s not optimistic. “It didn’t happen when we had a bigger Democratic majority than we have now.”

Though no one can agree on the details of how to get there, most everyone agrees on the big-picture goal. As Stand for Children’s Jessica Handy put it, “We need more money in the system, no doubt about it, and we need a system that drives that money where it needs to go.”

See “Illinois education funding agreement gets initial OK,” Education Week April 2016, and “A graduated income tax could put Illinois in the clear,” The Chicago Reporter April 2016.

Freelancer Maureen Kelleher's work has appeared in Education Week and the Harvard Education Letter. She was an associate editor with Catalyst Chicago from 1998-2006.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.