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Spending claims raise questions about U-46


By Seth Hancock
  Is School District U-46 being honest with the public as it pushes its political agenda for more money from the state? Are districts with higher low-income populations really being treated unfairly? Are U-46’s problems really about a lack of funding?
  These questions are raised as U-46 recently held a town hall meeting supporting a new bill in Springfield, a so-called “evidence-based” education funding bill, which was for “advocates” according to a district press release rather than a discussion on the merits, or lack thereof, of the bill.
  In the district release, U-46 continues to claim the state is “spending just 81 cents on a low-income student for every whole dollar it spends on a non-low-income student,” a claim The Examiner has shown to appear to be misleading as reported earlier this year. It also claimed the state is “one of the most underfunded in the entire nation.”
  As previously reported, using the Illinois State Board of Education’s data, U-46 receives far more funding from the state than seven other nearby districts. U-46 receives $3,435 per student from the state compared to $860 in D304 (Geneva), $1,185 in D101 (Batavia), $1,190 in D203 (Naperville), $1,192 in D303 (St. Charles), $1,339 in D220 (Barrington), $1,412 in D200 (Wheaton) and $1,424 in D202 (Lisle).
  In regard to being “one of the most underfunded” states in the nation, according to the 2014 Annual Survey of School System Finances from the U.S. Census Bureau, Illinois is the largest spender–$13,077 per student on average–in education among the 13 Midwest states, and spends the 13th most in the country. With its current $511.4 million budget and 39,711 enrollment, presented by the district earlier this school year, U-46 spends $12,878.04 per student, which is higher than every other Midwestern state.
  The Examiner asked the Board of Education if these statements by U-46 are misleading as well as if it is appropriate for the district to push political agendas, considering taxpayers in the district represent a wide range of political ideologies. Phil Costello, Cody Holt, Sue Kerr and Jeanette Ward all responded while Traci Ellis, Veronica Noland and Donna Smith did not.
  Costello did not answer the question directly, but did say there is a need for more discussion on holding the system accountable over discussions on more funding.
  “While I would agree that U-46 should have access to an equitable allocation of public funding toward its large population of low-income families, the real challenge should focus on being accountable in demonstrating evidence-based results,” Costello said. “In my estimation, establishing the need for funding should require a longitudinal perspective that relies on explicit performance achievement milestones to justify public investment. Simply asking the state for more funds will only perpetuate the status quo that has led to Illinois’ woeful financial condition.”
  Kerr also did not directly answer the question, saying the “81 cents” claim is “based on state AND local funding” coming from Funding Illinois’ Future, which obtained those numbers from Education Trust. The Examiner reported that previously, however the district is making that claim to imply the state is not funding them fairly while the reality is Illinois funds U-46 at a higher rate than the state average.
  “As far as comparing state funding, that's a difficult subject since you need to adjust for regional differences in cost of living,” Kerr said while referencing an NPR and Education Week article headlined “Why America’s Schools Have A Money Problem.”
  Both Holt and Ward said the claims were misleading, but Ward said U-46 CEO Tony Sanders has the support of the board’s majority.
  “As for the appropriateness of the district advocating for pieces of IL education funding legislation, the district and Mr. Sanders have the support of the majority of the U-46 Board of Education on this matter (though not MY support), and if people living in the district want to change the ­messaging and priorities of the district then they need to participate in and win elections. Elections matter,” Ward said.
  Holt, who has advocated for structural reforms over funding reform from the state during his two years on the board, was unsuccessful in his reelection bid. During the campaign the three union-backed candidates, all of whom won, also gave misleading claims such as U-46 facing declining or flat revenues and the district relying more on property taxes, both of which are unfounded according to ISBE data.
  From 2006 to 2015, revenues have increased by $110 million, $45 million over the rate of inflation according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ inflation calculator, and reliance on state funds has jumped from 21 percent in 2010 to 29 percent in 2015.
  “Almost any change to the state funding formula will essentially be a bailout, paid for by suburban taxpayers, for Chicago Public Schools,” Holt said. “We need common sense structural reforms that will give us more freedom and flexibility as your elected officials. Illinois Democratic legislators led by Speaker Mike Madigan are obstructing all of the reforms that will benefit U-46 taxpayers.”
  The town hall meeting was hosted by Fix the Formula Illinois, which is affiliated with Funding Illinois’ Future. There are 17 school districts, mostly downstate, aligned with the group that are suing Governor Bruce Rauner as well as the ISBE, claiming unfair funding.
  “My other concern is that our district’s continued involvement in this group will lead us to use taxpayer funds to take civil action against the governor and ISBE,” Holt said. “This has already happened with school districts downstate who are members of this group.”
  Holt has additional fears.
  “My final concern is that the special interest groups, career bureaucrats and political insiders are trying to change the funding formula for their own benefit, and not that of the ­students,” Holt said.
  Sanders has viewed his job as being a political lobbyist more than running the school district, as Rep. Fred Crespo (IL-44), a supporter of the “evidence-based” model lauded him at the town hall as doing “a phenomenal job” because he’s in “Springfield all the time pulling us by the ear saying ‘hey, you have to support this.’”
  Rep. Jeanne Ives (IL-42), who ­opposes the model, told The Examiner that spending is not the issue and ­referenced two districts, both of which are involved in the lawsuit, as ­evidence. From ISBE data, Cahokia’s CUSD 187 spends $14,959 per student and has 74 percent low-income ­students, with only 5 percent of ­students ready for the next level, while Gillespie’s CUSD 7 with 71 ­percent low-income spends far less, $10,916 per student, but 30 percent are ready for the next level.
  “You’re spending all this money, and you have nothing to show for it,” Ives said of CUSD 187.
  The Examiner looked at data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress showing that while the state spends the most in the Midwest, it was not the top of any of the 10 measures reviewed and was in the bottom half of most measures. South Dakota, spending the least in the Midwest at under $9,000 per student, exceeded the state in most measures.
  The Department of Education’s “Digest of Education Statistics” shows spending on education in the nation has increased more than 180 percent and the number of teachers employed by nearly 100 percent since 1970, but enrollment and test scores have been flat.
  “We find that traditionally collected input measures–class size, per-pupil expenditure, the fraction of teachers with no certification, and the fraction of teachers with an advanced degree–are not correlated with school effectiveness,” said a 2013 study by Harvard researchers Will Dobbie and Roland G. Fryer, Jr. titled “Getting Beneath the Veil of Effective Schools: Evidence from New York City.­”

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