SPRINGFIELD – After voters rejected a ballot initiative that would have increased taxes on the state’s highest earners, Illinois school district officials and advocates expect cuts to state funding. The ballot initiative, commonly referred to by advocates as the “Fair Tax,” was projected to pump billions into the state’s coffers during a period when the state’s budget deficit is widening. Both state and local leaders are also contending with the continued financial fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Robin Steans is the President of Advance Illinois, a public education advocacy organization. Since the state adopted its evidence-based funding formula in 2017, Steans says lawmakers have sent about $900 million into the state’s school systems, with most of that funding going to the poorest districts. Still, about half of Illinois districts have less than 70% of the funding they need. Steans says the state made three years worth of progress on a 10-year plan to ensure equitable funding across school districts, but the COVID-19 pandemic halted that progress. Instead, this year schools received the same funding from the state that they did last year. In the wake of the rejection of the Fair Tax and the absence of additional pandemic relief from the federal government, Steans fears the cuts to public education in Illinois will be painful and erode at least some of the progress the state has made toward ensuring all schools have the resources they need to serve students.
Illinois Newsroom spoke with Steans about how the Fair Tax rejection and the current economic uncertainty will impact schools, teachers and students.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Lee Gaines: What’s the connection between the future of the evidence-based funding formula and the graduated income tax referendum?
Robin Steans: I want to start by saying I think that everybody in Springfield on the executive side and in the legislative side is committed to continuing to put more dollars into the evidence-based formula. The flat funding that happened this year I don’t believe was a lack of political will or prioritizing education and the formula, I think it was simply we didn’t have the money. I think folks know that we borrowed around $6.5 billion to make our budget work this year. And that’s a huge amount. So, we had some profound deficits, largely as a result of COVID.
There’s a bunch of money in our budget that simply has to be spent certain ways. We’re under either court decrees or legislative dictates and mandates. There’s just a lot of dollars that go out the door that have to go out the door, the way they go out the door of the door. All of what’s called the discretionary budget that’s leftover, education — everything from early childhood to K-12 to higher education — makes up roughly a third of the discretionary budget. So when you have a significant shortfall, it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to protect education. It’s going to be affected. So when you hear the governor in the wake of the Fair Tax (failure) saying, look, we borrowed $6.5 billion on the theory that two things would happen on the revenue side one, the fair tax would pass, and that would release about a billion and a half dollars in the remainder of this fiscal year, and then over $3 billion next year. And that, too, there would be another round of federal aid coming. And that some significant amount of those dollars would be either earmarked for or used for education. So the Fair Tax didn’t pass. And there has not yet been another federal aid package that’s come to the rescue.
It is hard for me, without some additional revenue, be it some federal or some alternative state revenue strategy, it’s hard to believe that the governor isn’t right when he says… there will be cuts and they will be painful. So absent new revenue, there will have to be cuts. If there are cuts, there is no way to protect education, because education is a third of the discretionary budget.
LG: So what does the future of evidence-based funding look like without the graduated income tax? And what does that specifically mean? or potentially mean for school administrators, for teachers, and for students, particularly in these schools, that are still not at the funding level that they need to be at according to the formula?
RS: So, we put an additional $300 to $350 million, in some cases actually a little bit more than that, each of the last three years. So there is $900+ million additional dollars in the education system. That’s the good news that those districts that got those dollars as additional dollars can continue to count on those dollars unless we cut. And those dollars have made a powerful difference, particularly at the districts that have been the most underfunded. So I think the biggest concern out in the field now is they certainly want to see the additional dollars continue to flow because we continue to be underfunded, but I think there is even greater alarm that we might start. Remember, before we passed the evidence-based funding bill, we were actually cutting dollars, we were prorating funds. And it was only just after this third year where the state was doing exactly what it said it was going to do. It said it was going to put these new dollars into the formula, it was doing that, it had done it for three years. And I think schools were finally really trusting, okay, I’ve dug myself out of my financial hole, I can really make these programmatic decisions and not have to worry that the financial rug is going to be yanked out from under me. And so the timing of this, I think, is challenging, not just because there’s concern that dollars will be taken away. But because when districts are uncertain, they’re less likely to make the programmatic and staffing investments that they need, and that students need. And so I think what breaks my heart is that schools may feel like, okay, I don’t know if cuts are coming. So instead of hiring that additional counselor at this time when students’ mental health and well-being has been so under attack, instead of hiring that additional social worker or counselor, I’m going to keep that money in the bank, because I don’t trust that there may not be cuts coming. Or I may not feel like I can do the kind of robust summer program or provide some of the robust tutoring our students may need given the academic swipes that are happening as a result of remote and disrupted learning. That’s the impact of this uncertainty that is hard: the decisions that districts feel they need to make to be financially responsible, because the road ahead is so uncertain until they know what revenue will or won’t be coming.
LG: What are you most concerned about when you look at the future of education funding in this state?
RS: One way or another, we need revenue. And that’s going to be some combination, I hope, of the economy rebounding and just being in a healthier place. But it’s hard for me to believe we’re going to get out of this without dealing with our budget, both some of the deeper structural issues we need to look at, but also revenue. Obviously, the Fair Tax was one way to generate additional revenue. It is not the only way.
That fact that over half of our schoolchildren are in districts with less than 70% of the dollars they need to do the job the way it needs to be done, should worry everybody about the future of the state, that is not only compromising the future of those individual students, but it’s putting our own growth and our own stability at issue. We cannot sustain that. And we’re living the results of that. The number of students who are where they need to be in terms of reading at grade level by that very important third and fourth grade year is around a third. And that’s about the number of districts that have the dollars they need. It’s eerily related. And there is a growing body of deep research that says if you want to really do right by kids, getting the dollars to the districts that need the most over a sustained period of time is an incredibly important driver of better, stronger student growth and success. And we were on that path. It is heartbreaking that we’ve hit a block. It is just heartbreaking. And a 5% cut to K-12 translates into roughly $350 million. So every 5% cut, we lose a year of that progress that has been so hard fought and so hard won. If we cut 10% out of the K-12 budget, we will have lost two years. It’s a permanent loss. It’s not just a one year blip of loss. If we cut 15%, we’ve lost it all. We’re right back where we started. So there is a lot at stake. I mean, the future of our students, but more deeply and importantly, the future of the state.
LG: What do you hope happens?
RS: I don’t think we have easy answers. I don’t think money is falling from trees. I certainly hope that the feds, in the wake of this election… that there will be a package from the feds and there will be significant dollars for schools and education more broadly. That will help. I think we’re going to have to talk about revenue and fiscal reforms. I hope sooner than later. And I hope people understand just how much is at stake. I think the good news is most voters, most citizens and most legislators, at least in the K-12 space, feel like we have a formula that is thoughtful, that is equitable, and that does what it’s supposed to do. And so the confidence they have in that I hope will help as well.
Lee Gaines is a reporter for Illinois Public Media.
Follow Lee Gaines on Twitter: @LeeVGaines