The State of Education Funding in Illinois

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

panelists at education equity discussion sitting at a table with a screen behind them.

The Illinois school funding system is broken. Years of education disinvestment and borrowing against pension funds have left enormous debt obligations, current education funding streams inherently disenfranchise low-income students, and those that could affect change are disinclined to engage with issues that, in their perception, do not impact them. Change is needed.

On January 19, 2017, the Education + Equity Member Network of Forefront convened at the Robert R. McCormick Foundation to discuss the state of Illinois’ educational system. Participants included Missy Carpenter, United Way of Metropolitan Chicago;  Sara Shaw, Office of the Governor; Illinois Senator Andy Manar (D-48); Ralph Martire, Center for Tax and Budget Accountability; Lisa Scruggs, Duane Morris LLPIllinois Representative Bob Pritchard (R-70); Brandis Friedman, WTTW—Chicago Tonight; and Peter Mich, McDougal Family Foundation. 

Under discussion was wealth disparity throughout Illinois and the ripple effect caused by lack of equity in funding in Illinois schools. The current ratio of spending for students alienates low-income students while favoring their non-low-income peers, despite studies showing a high correlation between increased income and better academic performance. Similarly, better academic performance and increased education funding are shown to be the most effective drivers of a state’s economy and ultimately contribute to a decline in public costs such as prison and healthcare. When denied equitable education funding, low-income students enter the workforce without the competitive advantages granted to non-low-income students, and the state, as a whole, suffers from loss of innovation and investment.

The intrinsic discriminatory effect of the education funding system not only perpetuates systemic racism, but also prevents full participation in society for many groups. A lawsuit concerning this inequity has been in the courts for eight years. While some of the findings have been clear, separation of powers means that judges are limited in the funding decisions they can make outside of the legislative process. A clear judgement on the discriminatory nature of the funding system may help move reform efforts forward or to a consent decree to help shape more equitable funding.

However, politics make much-needed reform efforts difficult. A significant challenge in increasing and altering state funding is the complacency of those content with the status quo. For those unmotivated or unwilling to take action on issues that don’t directly affect them, it is necessary to show—through visits to a wide range of Illinois schools—the varying conditions faced by students and educators, and to demonstrate how things work under the current funding system.  

Because the percentage of students living in poverty has increased throughout Illinois, it is clear that wealth disparity is not only an issue facing Chicago, but a statewide issue. In fact, there are schools in every part of the state without the resources to address these challenges. Understanding that this is a statewide issue can change how legislators and advocates view it as a whole.

Evidence based funding models indicate the amount of money needed to create an adequate, equitable funding system. Fully implementing evidence based funding in Illinois and thus ensuring access to a high-quality education to all students would require $3.8 billion in increased educational funding. While this is a significant amount of money, it is only .5% of Illinois' GDP and the resulting tax increased would be too small to have a noticeable effect on the state economy. These evidence based funding models and the clear connections between education spending and student outcomes can help build ideaological bridges to bring together those that could affect substantial change in Illinois education funding. Similarly, engaging board members of funders involved in reform efforts and developing board understanding around state education funding can create new advocates to help drive reform forward. 

The Education + Equity Member Network is planning another Education Equity Learning Session for the Spring –-more details will follow. For more information on Forefront's Member Networks and to find out how to join, contact Kim Casey, Director, Member Networks at