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Illinois steers funding toward struggling school districts

The Illinois State Board of Education will determine each district’s financial status before distributing funds, in light of the revamping of state education funding. (Gettyimages.com: frankramspott).
The Illinois State Board of Education will determine each district’s financial status before distributing funds, in light of the revamping of state education funding. (Gettyimages.com: frankramspott).

Illinois has revamped state education funding to provide extra support to economically challenged K12 districts. Evidence-based funding, which goes into effect in 2018, considers each district’s needs and local funding resources when allocating state aid, with extra emphasis placed on high-poverty districts.

Previously, nearly two-thirds of funding for each district—compared to a national average of 45 percent—came from local property taxes. This generally benefited districts in wealthier communities.

Opponents of the new structure say it forces those more affluent districts to support struggling systems.

The legislation also aims to eliminate the achievement gap by raising the performance of at-risk students—not by reducing standards.

“The new Illinois legislation levels the playing field for all students,” says Deborah Delisle, executive director of ASCD.

The Illinois State Board of Education will spend the next few months determining each district’s financial status before distributing funds.

Illinois evidence-based funding at a glance

New: Illinois will use a formula to distribute state K12 funding rather than relying solely on local property taxes. Economically disadvantaged districts are prioritized to better ensure equitable funding.

How it works: Multiple factors, such as a district’s demographics and enrollment, are used to calculate a per-student “funding adequacy target.” The percentage difference between the projected adequacy target and actual spending determines a district’s tier—the higher the percentage, the needier the district. Each of the four tiers then receives a different percentage of state funding, with the most needy districts getting the most.

New challenges arise

The challenge for districts will come as the law’s details are sorted out, says Delisle. For example, it’s not clear how districts will be held accountable for performance. Also, Illinois must determine how it will measure the impact of the extra funding.

Although this is a new approach for Illinois, 35 other states gear funding toward assisting low-income districts, according to a June 2017 study from the Urban Institute. Allocations and formulas vary greatly, and the effectiveness of these efforts is difficult to track.

Districts receiving increased financial support need well-conceived, detailed spending plans in place, says Delisle. Those plans should include assessments of programs, products and services that address the district’s needs so funds can be spent effectively.

Long-term view

The real challenge for any funding formula is how it holds up over years. As cost of living, student demographics and tax rates fluctuate, a formula often needs to be tweaked—a detail legislators often overlook despite their best intentions.

The new Illinois approach may not have any wider national impact as most state legislators do not look to other states for funding guidance, says Delisle. “I don’t know that there’s one perfect funding formula,” she says. “Hopefully we’ll look back and say, ‘Wow, Illinois hit upon a successful formula and can share it with other states.’”