A generation of children has graduated from public school in the years since Illinois lawmakers first talked seriously about revamping the way the state’s public schools are funded.
We’re still talking, but doing very little. It is encouraging, however, that the volume on the conversation is rising. It gives us hope that our legislators might finally muster the political will necessary to right this decades-old wrong.
One proposal, HB 750, already introduced in Springfield, and a second, expected to be introduced when the 2005 legislative session begins in mid January, could revamp the way we fund schools in Illinois. Both would raise income taxes and lower property taxes while increasing the amount the state spends on elementary and secondary education.
Change is sorely needed. While legislators have failed to lead, a whopping 80 percent of the state’s school districts are operating in the red. And property tax payers are breaking under the burden of ever-higher levies—all while school-children are suffering.
Or, we should say, those children who attend public school in low-income communities are suffering. In higher-income districts, more than $18,000 is spent per student. But schools in some districts spend less than $5,000, even though research shows that it costs more to educate low-income students. It’s little wonder Illinois continues to rank 48th out of the 50 states when it comes to education equality.
Despite those embarrassing statistics—and a state constitution that says the state has the primary responsibility for education—the state pays, on average, only 36 percent of the cost of a student’s education. Other states pay, on average, 50 percent.
To his credit, Gov. Rod Blagojevich has held firm to his commitment to invest in education funding despite a tight budget. In his first budget, he increased funding by $250 per student. In his second, by $154. But it’s not nearly enough. Even with the additional money, the state is falling short in 2005 of what its own Education Funding Advisory Board believes was the minimum required to adequately educate a student in 2003.
This is not acceptable. If we don’t pay now, we will pay later, according to the report from the Education Funding Advisory Board. Think about these statistics: Half of all welfare recipients are high school dropouts, 18 percent of community college students enroll in at least one remedial course and 30 percent of Illinois prison inmates cannot read at a sixth-grade level.
There is a better way. It’s the same solution that’s been bouncing around Springfield for the last two decades: Raise the income tax. This step demands political leadership. And Blagojevich, with his eye on an even bigger political future, is not up to the job. He says he will find more money for education without raising the income tax or the sales tax.
Even if he finds the money in a state budget that could be as much as $2.4 billion short again next year, it will not be enough. He needs to change the structural inequity in a system that puts some children in overcrowded classrooms, studying from outdated textbooks and being taught by underqualified teachers while other children choose between orchestra and advanced algebra.
Of the two legislative proposals, HB 750 is the most comprehensive. An amendment introduced by State Sen. James T. Meeks (I-Calumet City) would raise income taxes from the current 3 percent to 5 percent (with some provisions so the poorest don’t keep paying the biggest share.) It also would expand the sales tax and raise corporate income taxes. This money would fund schools, rebate property taxes and raise an extra $2 billion to close the state’s budget gap.
The other bill, a proposal State Sen. Richard J. Winkel Jr. (R-Urbana) plans to introduce, would increase personal and corporate income taxes to raise $5 billion. Half would be rebated to property taxpayers, $1.8 billion would go to elementary and secondary schools and $500 million would go to higher education. Winkel says his plan can attract a veto-proof majority.
Our children better hope so, since our governor refuses to risk his political future to ensure theirs.