Jim Broadway

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Illinois School News Service

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Volume 25, Number 4, January 18, 2019

Constitution's school funding promise = zero

By Jim Broadway, Publisher, Illinois School News Service

In the last issue, I promised that sometime we would take a look at Article X of the Illinois Constitution of 1970, the substantively meaningless Education Article of our state's most fundamental document of governance. Well, today is sometime. Actually, the State Board of Education raised the subject.

How so? By proposing this week that the FY 2020 appropriation for the "Evidence-Based Funding" line item in ISBE's budget be $11.765 billion. Sure, it's 72.1% more than this year's EBF appropriation of $6.836 billion. But look at it this way: it's actually 15.3% less than the agency had recommended for this fiscal year.

So ISBE's trending toward conservative. Well, there's also the agency's recommendation for Early Childhood Education. The State Board proposes $2.4 billion for that - a 386% increase over this fiscal year's appropriation of $493.7 million. What could possibly be the rationale for such recommendations?

"The recommended investment fulfills the state's constitutional mandate to assume the primary responsibility for funding public education in Illinois," asserts the ISBE news release. Constitutional mandate? Yes, that's often asserted. I've even asserted it on occasion, knowing all the while that there's no such thing.

We'll return to the ISBE budget proposal in a moment. First, let's examine that constitutional issue. The substance of the constitution ratified by the voters in December of 1970 was referred by a constitutional convention. A major provision was the income tax. Illinois didn't have one - and clearly it had no future without one.

But how do you get the voters to approve an income tax? Same way the state avoided a civil war over the income tax hike of 2017; you link it to public education, to the children, to the future of the state. Article X was (falsely) described as a guarantee that the state would pay most of the cost of all the public education.

Take a look at the last sentence of Section 1 of Article X: It states: "The State has the primary responsibility for financing the system of public education." Now what does that mean? Ratification advocates sort of claimed that it meant the state would pay at least half of the total cost. Some thought at least more than anyone else.

Anyway, that's the promise that got the document ratified 1,122,425 to 838,168 (Only a simple majority was needed.) It was a special election, which means only voters who were interested in this specific question were motivated to make the effort. Otherwise, it is most unlikely that ratification would have happened.

The state has never paid as much as half of total K-12 education costs, but for a few years it did pay more than any other source of school funding. Its peak was about 48% of the total, with federal funding at about 8% and property taxes paying the rest. But the state's share got shifted more to the property taxpayers every year.

The truth was that Illinois could not afford to keep the promise that the voters understood was in the constitution with just the tiny, flat 2.5% personal income tax then in effect. It could not provide a normal menu of services to constituents with abnormally small revenue streams - small, flat income tax; narrow-based sales tax.

Over time, inevitably, educational resource inequities emerged that made Illinois a national disgrace. Taxable property values were concentrated, largely in the suburbs around Chicago which gained value from the white flight that began after Brown v. the Board in 1954 and picked up steam in the 1960s and 70s.

But what about the promise, the constitutional guarantee of the state's "primary" role in funding schools? Visualize calendar pages flapping in the breeze to 1995. After increasing stress and consternation, a coalition of school districts sued, based on Article X and on the U.S. Constitution's equal protection clause.

The Illinois Supreme Court ruling is a sad document, but if you're interested in the "why" of all this you should read it. But as to Article X, the explanation is simple: the word "financing" does not mean "paying for." It means "deciding who will pay for" something. The state does make that decision, so there's no violation.

What about equal protection? After significant gobbledygook and a review of other cases, the Supreme Court had this to say: "While plaintiffs and amici perceptively characterize the relationship between education and certain basic aspects of citizenship, we disagree with their conclusion that this relationship justifies treating education as itself a fundamental right for equal protection purposes." (Yes, that seems lame to me, too.)

So you see it asserted all the time - just as it was in ISBE's news release Wednesday - that the state has the primary responsibility for "funding" the public schools. That's what we all thought in 1970. (Not you, of course. You're too young.) That's the provision that motivated voters, that drove the constitution's ratification.

But the constitution does not say that. It says the state's duty is financing, which is not paying, necessarily, but is rather deciding who will pay for public education in the schools of Illinois. But that power is inherent in the general authority of the legislators and the governors anyway - so in the constitution it means nothing.

What else to the constitution seem to say but doesn't really mean? Here's the first sentence of Section 1 of Article X: "A fundamental goal of the People of the State is the educational development of all persons to the limits of their capacities." Sounds great. But courts say "goals" are not "rights." So this means nothing.

Second sentence: "The State shall provide for an efficient system of high quality public educational institutions and services." Totally subjective. Means nothing. Third sentence: "Education in public schools through the secondary level shall be free." Well, free at least means something, for what it's worth.

Section 2 of Article X creates the State Board and the State Superintendency. The only specific is that board members must represent the various "regions" of Illinois. Everything else is to be defined or limited by, or otherwise dependent on, law. The legislators could set it up without a constitution. Means nothing.

Section 3 of Article X seems unambiguous: "Neither the General Assembly nor any county, city, town, township, school district, or other public corporation, shall ever make any appropriation or pay from any public fund whatever, anything in aid of any church or sectarian purpose, or to help support or sustain any school, academy, seminary, college, university, or other literary or scientific institution, controlled by any church or sectarian denomination whatever; nor shall any grant or donation of land, money, or other personal property ever be made by the State, or any such public corporation, to any church, or for any sectarian purpose."

This provision is violated annually, especially in bills funding "infrastructure." A legislator likes nothing better than to have a facility at a school - secular or religious - named after him. (Yes, it's pretty much always a him.) So this constitutional provision has clear and substantive meanings - but it is simply ignored.

Okay, back to ISBE's FY 2020 budget proposal: The EBF line would rise by about $5 billion from current funding because ISBE calculates it would take eight years of $660 million increases (total $5,280 billion) to reach the EBF's funding target, but that would be reached in FY 2020 if the ISBE recommendation is enacted.

"Every child deserves an equitably funded and high-quality public education system within the current generation," the ISBE news release asserts [emphasis mine]. Legislators knew the cost of their promise under the EBF legislation they are all so proud of - but they consciously decided to half-fund it at $350 million per year.

Why the huge increase in Early Childhood funding? "ISBE estimates 315,409 children ages 3 to 5 statewide are not served by an early childhood education program funded by the agency in FY 2019. Research shows early childhood education significantly impacts students' social and economic outcomes." That's all true.

There are other interesting lines in the ISBE budget recommendation. We'll look at them in time. The question now is, what are the chances that the agency's proposals for EBF and Early Childhood funding. For FY 2020, the chances seem nil. There are just too many fiscal pressures on the state.

But the value of the State Board's proposing, and explaining, these important funding targets - even though they may be impossible at this time - cannot be overstated. Legislatures and governors were allowed for years - for decades - to just spew platitudes and throw meaningless numbers in the air. ISBE is providing a documented basis on which advocates can nudge the policymakers, continually, toward actually doing some of the things they promise to do.

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