- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 21, 2015

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) - The Democrat sponsoring a contentious plan to overhaul the state’s nearly 20-year-old school funding formula said he’s altering the bill it to help remove partisan and regional opposition for ease of passage.

State Sen. Andy Manar of Bunker Hill proposed a measure last year to make school funding more equitable by directing more state money to poorer districts at the expense of wealthier ones. It passed the Senate but stalled in the House.

So, this session, he’s making one major change that aims to even out inequities: a new provision accounting for regional cost differences, such as higher teacher salaries in districts where the cost of living is higher. High-poverty districts in the Chicago area still would get a boost in their funding allotment, but poor districts in central and southern Illinois would now see smaller gains under the changes.

Specific funding details have not yet been calculated by the State Board of Education, which has done previous analyses.

Manar, who shared a draft of the legislation with The Associated Press, said he plans to file the changes in the coming days. Last session’s failed legislation, which Republicans said unfairly created a system of “winners and losers,” was frequently used in campaign mailers against Democrats in suburban swing districts.

“The changes are based on constructive criticism that’s coming mostly from suburban superintendents,” Manar said.

School funding could emerge as a key focus in the months ahead as new GOP Gov. Bruce Rauner sets out to work with a Democratic-led Legislature. An anticipated multibillion-dollar budget hole gives the divided government more incentive to revamp school funding to protect already struggling school districts that can’t make up the difference with property taxes.

Rauner, who invested millions of his own money in education reform before running for office, indicated during his gubernatorial campaign debate that he didn’t support Manar’s original bill but said the funding formula should be overhauled.

Under the current formula, Illinois schools receive general state aid funds to offset the basic cost of educating students through a formula factoring in poverty levels. But districts also get grants for programs such as special education and transportation, which are based on the number of students in those programs.

Since the funding formula was last overhauled in 1997, increases in spending on specialized programs have outpaced increases to general state aid - which funding reform proponents say results in the poorest districts hurting the most. For instance, schools in the small central Illinois community of Pana have roughly one-third of the available funds to spend per student compared to nearby Seneca, which draws more revenue from property taxes.

Manar’s revamped proposal would still require schools to demonstrate need before receiving almost any state money by showing how much local revenue they have to spend on students. Wealthier districts that rely largely on property tax revenues to fund their schools would receive less state aid, while property-poor districts would receive more.

Regional cost differences would be determined by separating areas into different labor markets and looking at the average salaries of college graduates within those markets.

In addition to accounting for regional cost differences, Manar also plans to see that districts with higher than average numbers of special education students receive more funding, as well as require a more thorough reporting of how districts spend state money on bilingual programs.

Adding in the regional cost factor “makes a more realistic calculation of the cost of educating students across the state is,” according to Ben Boer, deputy director for education reform group Advance Illinois.

Rauner spokesman Lance Trover said the governor had not yet reviewed Manar’s changes. “The end result of that process must result in changes that are fair to communities and improve student outcomes,” Trover said.

Meanwhile, Manar said, “everybody … knows our formula’s broken. That sets us on a path to fixing it.”

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Follow Kerry Lester on Twitter at https://twitter.com/kerrylester

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