Editor's Note: This article was created by aggregating news articles from Illinois Statehouse News that were written by various Illinois Statehouse News reporters.
SPRINGFIELD — Illinois hasn’t met its end of the bargain in funding the school districts this year — and it probably won’t next year, state education officials said Tuesday.
The state is supposed to help each district provide at least $6,119 for each student each year. This aid is combined with local property tax revenue and federal funding.
But this fiscal year, the per-pupil funding was $5,953, or 95 percent of the required spending, because the state did not provide enough aid, said Illinois State Board of Education superintendent Chris Koch told House Education Appropriations Committee members. The fiscal year ends June 30.
Koch said general state aid “remains the most equitable distribution of funding that we have,” to help narrow the gap between the wealthiest schools with access to more tax revenue and the poorest schools with less tax revenue at their disposal.
The Illinois State Board of Education, or ISBE, has seen its budget decrease over the past few years in federal and state aid.
In the 2010-11 budget year, ISBE had a budget of $11.2 billion, with about $7 billion coming from the state. For the current year, it’s working with a budget of $10.3 billion.
ISBE asked for $10 billion next year, but Gov. Pat Quinn has proposed $9.78 billion — a 2.2 percent decrease.
No one from the governor’s budget office was available for comment.
“There’s a number of districts in the state that are highly dependent on general state aid,” said Koch, referring to districts in lower-income neighborhoods without large property tax bases.
One of them is the Alton School District, where about 60 percent of the students come from low-income families, according to data compiled by education researchers at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb.
Chris Norman, the Alton School District’s finance director, said the district has been trying to do more with less over the past few years.
Norman said Alton spends about $7,700 per student, of which about $1,700 came from the state and the remainder from property tax revenue and the federal government.
“When you start talking about general state aid cuts, that’s huge,” said Norman.
Some districts are far less dependent on state aid. So-called flat grant districts in areas with a high property tax base receive only $215 per student, said Matt Vanover, spokesman for ISBE.
For Alton, said Norman, the general state aid has held relatively steady, which has helped the district cope with declining property tax revenue.
To stretch its budget, Norman said, the district has been increasing class sizes, almost to the limit — up to 25 students kindergarten to second grade and 30 for third grade and up.
The district has kept two popular programs, music and athletics, he said.
“We've tried to not tear apart programs we think are important,” Norman said.
The uncertainty over state education funding makes it hard for districts to plan ahead, said Robin Steans, executive director of Advance Illinois, an education advocacy group.
That some schools aren’t getting the promised per-student funding “makes it that much tougher for schools and teachers to implement reforms and meet student needs,” said Steans.
Some Illinois House lawmakers expressed an interest in changing how the state helps districts meet their per-student funding.
State Rep. Daniel Biss, D-Evanston, said, “I think this is just the latest in a long series of very clear pieces of evidence that we in the General Assembly really ought to look under the hood of the funding formula."
State Rep. Roger Eddy, R-Hutsonville — who's also the superintendent of the Hutsonville School District — suggested that ISBE divert funding from other programs, such as advanced placement, to support per-student funding.
"I think the documents I've seen from the state board of education in the past have indicated that in order of priorities, general state aid foundation level is number one," he said.
— Anthony Brino
SPRINGFIELD — Illinois wants to go a step further in addressing the causes of distracted driving in the age of ubiquitous mobile phone use.
State Rep. John D’Amico, D-Chicago, is sponsoring House Bill 3972 that would ban hand-held cell phone use while a person is driving, but allow the driver to use speakerphones and wireless devices. The bill would lobby fines of $75 for first-time violators and $150 after the fourth violation.
“At least with hands-free, you can have your second hand on the wheel,” D’Amico said.
“I remember seeing people driving with a coffee and doughnut in each hand and steering with their knees,” said state Rep. David Harris, R-Arlington Heights, who supports D’Amico’s bill. “There are distractions everywhere, but cell phones have become so pervasive, it’s clearly a public safety issue.”
Illinois law prohibits texting while driving as well as hand-held cell phone use in school zones and in most highway construction zones.
Since January 2010 in Illinois, 1,500 people have been convicted of texting while driving and 5,000 people have been convicted of using a hand-held cell phone in a school or construction zone, said Henry Haupt, a spokesman for the Illinois Secretary of State.
However, state Sen. John Millner, R-Bloomingdale, said the real issue is people who are distracted and driving recklessly.
“Some people can drive just fine while talking on the phone,” he said. “Others can’t, and they know who they are.”
Millner’s bill, Senate Bill 3537, would let drivers decide whether they can drive safely and talk on the phone. The bill would allow law enforcement to issue “distracted driving” violations for breaking traffic rules, such as citations and fines.
— Anthony Brino