Financial Incentives Would Ease Overcrowding of Schools

Published September 1, 1999

Growing school districts in Illinois that can’t pass bond referenda to build new schools still have the power to manage growth, according to a suburban lawmaker who points to a 1996 law granting school boards expansive new authority. One way school boards could use that authority would be to reduce the demand for new schools by providing a financial incentive for parents to educate their children at home or at a private school.

Although new homes and businesses in a fast-growing community add substantially to the local property tax base and provide public schools with increased tax revenues, school districts in those communities still need voter approval to issue bonds for new school construction. When voters reject such referenda, schools become crowded, parents become angry, and school boards come under increasing pressure to find a solution.

Illinois State Representative Cal Skinner Jr. recently suggested school districts provide parents with a financial incentive not to send their children to public schools, thus helping to relieve overcrowding and freeing up additional funds for those children who remain in the public schools.

Skinner proposed offering parents with children enrolled in a public school or moving into the district a $500 subsidy to send their children to a nonpublic school. The program would not benefit parents who home-school their children or already have them in private schools.

When asked if $500 would be sufficient to encourage students to transfer, Skinner acknowledged the incentive might need to be higher. He noted, however, that his local Grade School District 47, for example, could offer over $3,000 per student and still come out ahead.

“It’s just a pricing problem,” he explained. “Who knows what dollar amount it would take to get a significant number of students to switch to private schools?” While few parents might be interested in a $500 incentive, many would be interested at $3,000.

Skinner pointed out that District 47 spends $4,926 to educate each student, with $3,490 coming from local property taxes. For every family that could be given a $500 financial incentive and persuaded to educate its child somewhere other than the District 47 schools, there would be one fewer pupil to sit in an overcrowded classroom and $2,990 in local property taxes that could be allocated to the education of other students.

“Whatever you don’t spend on the student who leaves, you can spend on the students who stay,” he said.

According to Skinner, school boards in Illinois may already have the power to implement his proposed financial incentive program. A bill passed by the Illinois General Assembly in 1995, which became law in 1996, gave school districts powers similar to those granted to home rule municipalities under the 1970 Illinois Constitution. The intent was to allow school boards to do anything not forbidden by state law.

Skinner admits that schools by nature are not usually adventuresome bodies, and that his suggestion is likely to be regarded as “too audacious” even to consider. But school board members should ask themselves: Which would I rather have: overcrowded schools, split shifts, and year-round school, or children going to private schools?

“At some point, some school districts may discover that being audacious and pushing the envelope in a direction no other school district has taken may be better than stacking more and more desks and children into already overcrowded classrooms,” Skinner noted. “What I’m proposing is simply a growth management tool.”

The largest school system in Skinner’s district already is looking at non-traditional ways of managing growth. Unit School District 300 has encouraged parents to start a charter school as a way to add public school capacity without new construction. To date, no one has stepped forward to establish the charter.

But even District 300 officials have responded coolly to Skinner’s suggestion. Deputy Superintendent Fred Goering told the Daily Herald that most private schools in the area are full, so parents would find their options very limited. Skinner sees that as only a short-term concern, since suppliers would respond to increased demand.

“Demand is capable of driving supply,” said Skinner.