Eight days (and counting) after the state budget was due, and the only part of Illinois’ budget that’s in place is funding for public education. In a move that was largely political, current Republican Governor Bruce Rauner signed legislation that would guarantee funding for Illinois’ public schools come fall. He took a potentially nasty fight off the table which may have caused him to lose popularity as the pro-public education Democrats argued that it was the Governor who was delaying the start of the school year (assuming the legislature will not pass a budget by August 10th, the date the first round of payments to schools are due). Many view the legislation signed by Governor Rauner as a saving grace for schools, especially because it included a funding increase for K-12 education of $244 million, and a funding increase for early education of $25 million.
But despite this funding increase, schools across the state will again see their General State Aid prorated. Illinois has a generally confusing school funding formula, but the most important component of the formula is based on local property wealth within each school district. This means the funding a school district receives varies based on the revenue they are expected to be able to raise from local property taxes. While this formula is well intentioned, it doesn’t fully compensate for the disparities in quality of education faced by students living in areas of high poverty, especially as GSA was prorated at 89% for FY14 and FY15, leaving a gap in revenue that some school districts raised by charging for books, or increasing the price of registration. But that option is not feasible at all schools, leaving school districts in poorer areas struggling to make ends meet for yet another year.
Illinois colleges are not immune to the financial issues of the state either. While ‘funding’ for public education has been guaranteed, school improvement projects have been stalled, including the pre-approved budget of Southern Illinois University’s science center. While the capital improvement project has already been approved, funds still have to be appropriated annually – a common practice that was expected to continue as it always has. But the failure of the Illinois legislature to pass a budget means SIUE will not receive the amount already promised to them until a budget is passed, presumably into the school year, forcing students into temporary classrooms and limiting the ability of a public college to provide sufficient education in an increasingly important discipline. And this is just one school, plenty of colleges and K-12 schools are relying upon the School Construction and Capital Development funds to finish construction projects repairing and expanding school facilities.
So while many herald Governor Rauner’s move as beneficial to the state of public education, I must respectfully disagree. The Governor made a calculated political move, a move which will again underfund schools and ignore the various monetary challenges that school districts will face without an approved budget for the state. And the conversation has been taken off the table. The public education system is expected to take what it’s been given, but what it’s been given is insufficient. A locked-in budget for schools means a lack of dialogue around public education, and a lack of dialogue means the same thing it always has. Other interests lobby for their portion of the budget, and the children of Illinois are hurt. There is also no end in sight for the budget debate now – whereas before school funding would have played a critical part in ensuring a budget passed by or soon after August 10th. State workers, non-profits with governmental contracts, and various public institutions, our public universities included, will likely go without pay and funding for much longer than perviously expected. The current political climate is not sustainable for Illinois citizens. Republicans and Democrats alike need to face the reality that the families of state employees are already facing – their decisions are no longer about policy, they are about people. A budget must be passed as soon as possible, and hard choices will have to be made; but not without authentic discussion on the future of public education in Illinois.