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Stop talking and fix the school funding formula
Crain's Chicago Business
Saturday, March 25, 2017  |   Editorial  |   Editorial Board
Education Funding (36a)

Fourth grade is considered a make-or-break year, when students transition from learning how to read to using their budding literacy skills to learn. In Illinois, whether a fourth-grader can make that leap unfortunately depends, in part, on her address. That is both unfair to our children and harmful to the state's economy.

If the student lives in Lake Bluff, odds are good she'll be ready. In 2016, two-thirds of the North Shore suburb's fourth-graders met or exceeded standards on a widely regarded national assessment that tests whether students are prepared for the next grade. A half-hour north in Lake County, her odds aren't nearly as favorable. The chances that a fourth-grader in Zion will pass the same test? Just 1 in 10.

The difference between the addresses is local wealth. Mostly affluent and white Lake Bluff spends $19,000 a year per student, while Zion, where 86 percent of its mostly black and Hispanic student population is low-income, provides not quite $11,100 per student.

Chicago lands between these two poles: Chicago Public Schools, which serves a predominantly black and Hispanic and overwhelmingly poor student body, spends $15,300 per student annually. Only a quarter of fourth-graders met or exceeded standards on the 2016 test.

In other places, state government would do more to reduce this gap in wealth and performance. But Illinois ranks dead last among the 50 states in how much is spent on education for low-income kids, according to a new report from advocacy group Advance Illinois.

To try to force Illinois to do better by its future generations, CPS CEO Forrest Claypool on Feb. 14 filed a civil rights suit over "discriminatory" education funding. In doing so, CPS joins a line of beleaguered and battered school districts that have used the nuclear option, from Wyoming and Arkansas to Ohio and New York.

We've criticized CPS in recent years for shorting pensions, overspending and lack of transparency. But we believe CPS' suit reflects an equally deep rot: Illinois' backward school funding formula. Last updated in 1999, the current setup has been massaged and manipulated into a Frankenstein-ish mess of loopholes and special grants. Wealthy districts such as Lake Bluff can make up the difference with local tax dollars. That's not an option for towns that have lost their industrial bases and where home values wither, whether in suburban Chicago or downstate.

Rewriting a funding formula is complex, confusing and very political. But possible. Ohio and Kansas, for instance, rolled up their sleeves and did it, tossing in extra for low-income districts to improve teacher-student ratios, hire extra teachers and social workers, and to staff longer school days.

Our General Assembly, meanwhile, has convened about a decade's worth of meetings. Most recently, a bipartisan commission put to the task by Gov. Bruce Rauner issued a thorough report on Feb. 1. That's still being digested, but in an apparent swipe at the governor, Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan on Feb. 23 announced yet another funding commission to "continue working."

Enough with the commissions. Enough with the white papers. Enough with the game of chicken between Rauner and Madigan. It's time lawmakers in Springfield rolled up their sleeves and did the hard math—and the right thing.