Five Things You Should Know about Education Funding Reform

Published October 21, 2006

Jesse Jackson led a rally at the Thompson Center last Saturday, officially jumping on board the education funding reform bandwagon. The rally was held to show support for Senate Bill 750, which Democrats will likely try and push through the General Assembly during Novermber’s veto session.

Jackson and company complain that our education funding system relies too heavily on property taxes, an arrangement they claim leads to vast inequities in available resources between rich and poor school districts. SB 750 purports to solve the problem by providing property tax relief in exchange for higher income taxes that would fund an increase in education spending. Proponents claim the “swap” would enable the state to increase its share of education funding, reduce the schools’ reliance on property taxes, and increase the overall equity of school funding.

Sounds great, right? Who could possibly say no? Unfortunately, the details of the bill expose the superficiality inside. Here are a few reasons we should forget about SB 750:

1) Education funding disparities are mostly irrelevant because spending differences between districts are not a good indicator of school quality. Spending differs across school districts for a variety of reasons. Not all low-spending districts are poor and not all high-spending districts are rich. Disparities are not themselves proof that someone is being denied access to quality educational opportunities.

2) There are a few cases in which funding gaps might matter, but SB 750 is not designed to fix them. The legislation being considered will not take money from over-funded schools and give it to under-funded schools. It will take money from all taxpayers and give it to all schools by increasing the “foundation level” support. It pays no regard to who may need more money and who may not.

3) Education funding reform does nothing to address problems with the allocation of education resources, particularly teaching. Teachers are paid on a strict union salary scale. Teachers also earn seniority–which gives them, effectively, the ability to choose where they want to teach. Not surprisingly, most want to teach in schools where students have fewer educational and behavioral challenges. Since schools have no real freedom to offer higher pay for challenging environments, the net effect is that the most qualified teachers generally end up where they’re needed least.

4) Despite being proffered as a tax “swap,” SB 750 is no such thing. The alleged property tax relief is an illusion. Taxpayers will actually get a property tax abatement, to be paid out of a fund into which roughly $2.4 billion of revenue generated by the income tax increase will be dumped. This fund will then be used to pay a portion of your property tax bill every year.

Your tax rate will not go down. The first time an economic recession hits and income tax revenues are not enough to fill the tax relief fund, the state will cry broke and you will once again be expected to cover the full balance of your tax bill.

5) There is insufficient oversight of school budgeting, which means there is no way for taxpayers to know whether the extra $1.6 billion SB 750 gives to schools will be spent on teaching kids … or refurnishing the principals’ offices.

To monitor how your district spends its cash you will have to attend countless school board meetings, make endless phone calls, and probably file more than a few Freedom of Information Act requests. Will you get any help from the Illinois State Board of Education? Do I have to ask?

The state doesn’t expect you to take it upon yourself to audit Central Management Services or the governor’s office–there is an Auditor General for that. But when it comes to auditing your school, you’re on your own.

I applaud Jackson and Co. for keeping education reform a topic of discussion, but their tax swap will only increase the cost of failure. To talk about education funding reform without also discussing accountability, standards, oversight, and performance is a waste of time. And time is something many Illinois school children are running short on.

Michael Van Winkle ([email protected]) manages media relations for The Heartland Institute. This article was originally published by the Chicago Sun-Times on October 21, 2006.