The recent education legislation passed in Illinois is nothing short of historic: newly passed legislation overhauls the most regressive funding formula in the nation. The legislation also improves equity for charter school funding and creates the largest tax credit scholarship program at inception. After years of advocacy efforts around the funding formula and some pragmatic compromise this summer, both parties in the Illinois legislature and the Governor’s office came to an agreement on fixing the funding formula to make sure schools would be able to open. The resulting compromise was forged through a bi-partisan commitment to Illinois students and offered prized policy wins. PIE Network members and friends weigh in.
Funding Formula Reform
Illinois’ fix to their funding formula—a high profile legislative change—was fueled by a four-year effort of a massive coalition, Funding Illinois’ Future. Among other things, the new legislation sets an adequacy target for each school district, and the new distribution model takes into account local resources and prioritizes funding for the state’s neediest districts, a much needed move away from inequity in the funding system. Prior to the change, Illinois funding formula was one of the most, if not the most, inequitable funding systems in the country, as pointed out by this 2015 report by the Education Trust.
According to Ginger Ostro, executive director of Advance Illinois, this win is significant because support for the policy transcended regional and political differences:
“Small rural communities found they had much in common with big urban areas and poorer suburban communities.”
It took years to build broad support for the legislation. Advance Illinois helped bring together the Funding Illinois’ Future coalition of superintendents, teachers, parents, and community and civil rights leaders from rural, suburban, and urban areas to work toward fixing the school funding formula. By testifying in front of the General Assembly, crafting the policy, guiding the strategy, meeting with legislators, and speaking with the media, the coalition kept pressing this issue even after facing serious setbacks. Ginger Ostro shared, “Our success started with the power of our coalition, which put pressure on local legislators through individual meetings, letters to the editor, op-eds, and town halls.”
In recent years, there were two competing funding reform models—one supported by the coalition and one supported by the school management organizations. Advance Illinois made a strategic decision to engage with the management organizations and combine their efforts. Ginger Ostro said, “Recognizing that we could never pass a bill to redistribute funding to achieve equity—and that having two competing funding reform proposals meant the status quo would win—we examined the evidence-based model to determine if we could make it equitable.” Eventually, the two models became one, and the coalition expanded and strengthened.
Stand for Children Illinois is another PIE Network member who has been engaged in funding reform for an extended period of time. When it became evident that the Governor would veto the bill embodying the evidence-based funding formula, Stand launched a seven-figure polling, mail, phone, field and digital program that complimented the stalwart efforts of the coalition. They also worked closely with legislators, a number of whom they have supported at significant levels since 2010 through their political committees. As is the case with complex education reform policies, the work of advocacy groups doesn’t end when the bill becomes law.
Mimi Rodman, executive director of Stand Illinois, said, “The signing of this bill should be a call to action: school funding must be equitable, adequate, and, equally important, spent wisely during the implementation of this bill over the next many years. That is the next chapter and the challenge facing us moving forward.”
Acasia Wilson Feinberg from Educators for Excellence-Chicago, a member of the Funding Illinois’ Future coalition and the PIE Network, believes Illinois’ progress can be a model for other states that are not distributing funds based on the needs of students: “The fact that Illinois was able to pass an evidence-based formula—one of the few states in the country to make this shift official—allows Illinois to serve as a potential leader and model for a growing number of states that are moving this direction.”
She also emphasized the power of long-term, stable coalitions:
“Rather than being a story of inside politics or a small group of power brokers, the story of school funding reform in Illinois is one that is truly focused on the story of organized people.”
Ginger Ostro also emphasized the influence the impact the broad coalition had on the process: “By July, school funding was the only issue facing the General Assembly and schools were in jeopardy of not opening on time. Our solution was the only viable solution because the list of supporters was so broad—and it was good policy that improves equity.”
Equity for Charter Funding
In Illinois, charter disparities are as old as the charter authorizing act itself, which allowed charter schools to be funded at only 75 percent of the authorizing district. According to the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, these discrepancies have caused a lack of high-quality charter growth and noncompetitive salaries for charter teachers. Andrew Broy, President of Illinois Network of Charter Schools, said, “This law change will remedy that and is significant in a blue state.”
The Illinois Network of Charter Schools (INCS) played a substantive role in strategically building this into the recent compromise. They first established a funding task force in 2014 that issued a report calling for the change in the funding rate. After having established the factual basis for the change, they invested time and resources on two strategies. First, INCS led an expanded charter parent advocacy plan that included regular statehouse and in-district visits with elected officials. Second, the organization’s political and advocacy arm, INCS Action, was active in the 2014 and 2016 electoral cycles backing candidates who supported charter funding equity.
Tax Credit Scholarships
Illinois’ new tax-credit scholarship program—the final piece of this legislation and ultimate compromise—was the result of some high stakes trades across several policies. Legislators voted in bipartisan favor for equitable funding for charters schools and the state’s first private school choice program—an impressive feat in a predominantly blue state. The pilot program incentivizes individual and corporate donations to private school scholarships and has guardrails, so the resulting programs target students in poverty.
PIE Network member One Chance Illinois partnered with advocates and lawmakers to push toward a compromise that not only equitably funded Illinois’ schools, but provided Illinois’ students with options beyond their zip code.
Alex Kelly, vice president of advocacy for the Foundation for Excellence in Education, said that accomplishing this work took coordination and humility.
“Many partners involved had to be humble enough to understand when they were only being called upon for specific tactics, rather than owning the issue.”
ExcelinEd focused their efforts primarily on the tax credit scholarships and put a spotlight on the historic opportunities for student-centric reforms in Illinois.
The work in Illinois serves as an example of coalition-building done well, strategic deal-making, compromise, and bipartisanship; as such, there is plenty for the education reform community to analyze and incorporate into future efforts. Mimi Rodman, Executive Director of Stand Illinois, summarized the importance of this work: “This effort by so many is an important reminder that big change often takes a long time, and it is incumbent upon all of us to stay focused and strong, hold one another accountable, remember there will be peaks and valleys in our efforts, and remain unapologetically focused on helping improve education for all kids regardless of zip code.”