No easy answers in fixing education funding

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By La Risa Lynch

Whether implementing a progressive income tax, raising property taxes or using tax increment financing dollars, elected officials attending an Oct. 9 Oak Park legislative forum said there are no easy fixes to the state's education funding crisis.

State Senator Kimberly Lightford (4th) took aim at the school funding formulas for the disparity in doling out money to local school districts. She called the formulas outdated and out of step with state poverty numbers, which she said have tripled over the years. Even how the formulas are calculated is shrouded in mystery.

"No one really knows how these formulas are created," Lightford said. "[It's] pretty much a pie in the sky number."

Joining Lightford at the forum was state Senator Don Harmon (39th) and state Representatives LaShawn Ford (8th) and Camille Lilly (78th). The Committee for Legislative Action Intervention and Monitoring or CLAIM sponsored the forum held at Percy Julian Middle School, 416 S. Ridgeland Ave.

CLAIM is an ad hoc legislative committee created by Oak Park elementary school District 97. It specifically deals with the state legislature on issues related to public education.

Currently the state provides $4 billion in general state aid for education. That money, Lightford said, gets parceled out to local districts based on several factors, including students receiving free and reduced cost lunches, local property tax levels and equalized assessed valuation. Even funding for special education and bi-lingual education are based on formulas.

Since Oak Park's poverty rate is under 21 percent, less than half of the state's average of 49 percent, the village receives a little less state aid than other districts, Lightford said.

The question then becomes whether the distribution of school funding is adequate and meets the districts' needs now and not 40 to 50 years ago, she said.

To help figure that out, a state committee has been set up to determine how funding is distributed between property tax rich districts and their counterparts. The education funding advisory committee hopes to flesh out suggestions to improve the education funding formula by February 2014.

"The other question is where do we get more money from," said Ford. A fair or progressive tax takes a larger percentage of high-income earners salaries than it does low-income individuals. Democratic state Rep. Naomi Jakobsson (103rd) has sponsored such a measure in the House.

"The goal is to make sure we capture more revenue from those that are making more … and probably begin to fund education better," Ford said.

But there is a constitutionality issue with imposing a progressive tax, Harmon said. The state's constitution requires an income tax imposed at one flat rate. The House measure, Harmon said, seeks a constitutional amendment where those who earn less get taxed less while those who earn more pay a higher rate. However, he said, that amendment does not specify a rate or an income threshold.

"This is a tool in our tool box to raise adequate state revenue and potentially shift the burden of education funding away from property taxes …," Harmon said.

Lightford is skeptical. Illinois already passed a temporary income tax increase in 2011 with the hope of raising revenue for education. She cautioned using different arguments like gaming, pension reform or a progressive tax to raise money for education "if we are not putting it in the right place."

The state already spent $6 billion on education funding, but Lightford questioned whether the money is being properly spent and adequately distributed.

"There has not been a fair distribution of funds to the Austin community when those revenues arrive to the Chicago Board [of Education]. That is one of the biggest problems."

For the Austin community, she said, that caused a rift when across the border Oak Park's school system is in the top 10 in the state.

And while there has been a growing chorus to use TIF dollars to fund schools, Lightford contends the idea has advantages and disadvantages. TIFs do boost economic development but at the peril of school funding.

"For me it is important that they (TIFs) don't take away so much revenue from the school districts that you do better on one end and you hurt the other," she said.

The business community also plays a part in creating equity in school funding, Lilly said. She wants to look at corporate loopholes that deplete state revenues that could otherwise increase school funding.

"It does make a difference when you don't have the resources to fund the priority of our state which is education," Lilly said. "We need to get corporate America involved in the education crisis and the plan to make it better in Illinois."

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