DEKALB — Four years ago, Illinois overhauled the way it funds K-12 education.
The state used to have the most unfair education funding in the nation, according to a 2015 study from The Education Trust, a nonprofit organization that advocates for students. It found low-income schools received significantly less aid than they would in other states.
In DeKalb, 60% of students are designated as low-income, which is much higher than the state average of 48.5%.
Cindy Carpenter is the DeKalb school district’s director of business and finance. She says the old system wasn’t equitable and, even worse, the state didn’t put much money into it.
“What was happening with that formula was, each year they would be like, ‘Well, we just don’t have enough money to fund it. So, we’re going to do our calculation and now we’re going to prorate it. We’re gonna say you should get 20 million but, you know, we can only give you 85% of that,’” she said.
Carmen Ayala was the superintendent of the North Berwyn School District and served on a state coalition pushing the legislature to create a new funding model. Now, she’s the state superintendent. She says Illinois would wait until well into the summer to pay districts, which made it really hard to plan.
“A lot of districts make their staffing decisions in January, February, March. We used to have this big unknown and really couldn’t add staff,” said the state superintendent.
In 2017, the state enacted the Evidence-Based Funding formula. It looks at dozens of factors like the number of English language learners and special education teachers to come up with an “adequacy target” of how much the state believes a school should spend.
Schools furthest from their target are prioritized to receive the most state funding. Ayala says the new formula helped her district get new technology as well as reading and bilingual specialists.
Carpenter agrees it has made staffing easier, which helps when staffing makes up the vast majority of a school budget.
The districts that don’t have nearly enough local tax revenue coming in, like DeKalb, are known as “Tier 1.” Cindy Carpenter says they could feel the difference right away in the first year of evidence-based funding.
“We received an additional 2.8 million because of that Tier-1 status, because the whole point, is the districts that are in the lower tiers should get additional funding to get them to better adequacy,” said Carpenter.
Ayala says the goal was to get every school district up to at least 90% adequacy in a decade. But, like the old way, the formula needs money to work.
“We’re not there yet. And so we still have about eight out of 10 students are still in districts that have not reached 90% adequacy,” she said. “In order to get to that target, we need to invest about $900 million in that extra tier money.”
Illinois lawmakers promised to increase education spending by $350 million a year. If support continues at that rate, the state won’t meet its goal of all schools being adequately funded in 10 years.
The pandemic threw many wrenches into many well-laid plans, and education wasn’t immune. In 2020, education spending wasn’t cut like some feared but held flat.
It doesn’t mean that there aren’t still inequities. Because local tax dollars still reign supreme in education funding, some districts in the same county are lightyears apart in funding. Just in Ogle County alone, one district is at 68% of adequacy while another soars over 120%.
Low-income, Black & English-learning students still see the largest funding gaps.
That doesn’t mean that progress isn’t being made. When the funding model started, Illinois had over 150 school districts below 60% of their adequacy target. Today, there are just 16. Most Illinois students go to a school, like DeKalb, that’s between 60-70%.
Cindy Carpenter says DeKalb is in a much better place financially because of evidence-based funding, especially the “hold harmless” provision which means they’ll never get less money than they received the year before.
“There was a time when we had like a $10 million fund balance, which was a little spooky,” she said. “So, we had to be very careful. We had to do some cuts, and now we’re going back and saying ‘Okay, we need more staff.”
The district’s fund balance is about $50 million now, which gives them the flexibility to hire more teachers, decrease class sizes and even offer abatements to try and bring down local tax bills.
But Carpenter remembers what it was like before, in the days of unpaid bills and prorated state aid. She prefers evidence-based funding.
“I think it’s a great model,” said Carpenter. “The thing we’re always very concerned about is, are they going to continue to fund it so we can all get to that 100% adequacy mark, you know?”
Five years after helping it pass, current Illinois superintendent Carmen Ayala is also now the head of a state review panel assessing the overall impact of evidence-based funding. The group will be providing a report to the state legislature next year.