PI Original Ellyn Fortino Wednesday June 5th, 2013, 3:48pm

Illinois General Assembly Spares Cuts To Education Budget

Early childhood education advocates say the state's budget plan for the upcoming fiscal year that passed in the state House and Senate last week is a partial victory. Progress Illinois takes a closer look at how education will be funded under the new budget.

Early childhood education advocates say the state's budget plan for the upcoming fiscal year that passed in the state House and Senate last week is a partial victory.

The budget, which still needs Gov. Pat Quinn’s signature, may not restore the $25 million slashed from early childhood education last year, but funding will not be cut further for fiscal year 2014, which begins July 1.

“We saw in the previous years consistent cuts to the Early Childhood Education Block Grant, and so we thought that it was going to be the same this year,” said Maricela Garcia, CEO of the Gads Hill Center in Chicago.

The state's $35 billion general revenue funds budget for next fiscal year, which was drafted by Democrats, keeps funding for the Early Childhood Education Block Grant at the same $300 million level as the current fiscal year. The block grant funds Preschool for All, among other programs for families with infants and toddlers.

But since 2009, nearly $80 million has been cut from the Early Childhood Education Block Grant. As a result of the cuts, there are 22,000 fewer early childhood education program slots, Garcia said.

Community groups, parents and other advocates fought hard this year to see some of that early childhood education money restored, Garcia explained. Busloads of parents and their supporters, for example, went to Springfield to talk with legislators about the impact of the cuts.

Although the lost funding will not be brought back this upcoming year, the lobbying may have helped prevent the block grant from being slashed further, she said.

The new budget does not make cuts to K-12 education either.

General state aid to school districts will see an increase of about $155 million.

But even so, general state aid for elementary and high schools remains lower than it was in fiscal year 2012, said Larry Joseph, director of the Fiscal Policy Center at Voices for Illinois Children.

School districts, however, will continue to receive 89 percent of the funding they would normally be entitled to under current law. This means all school districts will see the same 11 percent cut in grants.

Last year, the proration resulted in school districts losing an average of $275 per pupil. The Chicago Public Schools (CPS) system, however, lost about $380 per student. Other school districts in places such as Cicero, Kankakee, Deactur and Danville saw their funding reduced by $500 to $600 for each student, Joseph explained.

Further education cuts were avoided thanks to a unexpected revenue windfall in the spring, said Joseph.

Bilingual education and school transportation will also remain at the same funding levels as the current fiscal year.

School transportation funding will continue to be prorated at about 64 percent. Districts will either have to make up the difference by cutting back on other costs or by reducing the availability of transportation for students.

By remaining at $206 million, transportation funding in the upcoming fiscal year will be much lower than the $355 million allocated in fiscal year 2010, Joseph pointed out.

The Illinois General Assembly essentially reversed Quinn’s 2014 budget proposal to cut $300 million from the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE). The cut would have put the agency $1.1 billion below fiscal year 2009's funding level.

Under Quinn’s proposal, $150 million would have been cut from general state aid. And about $145 million would have also been whacked from school transportation reimbursements.

The new budget also saves higher education from cuts.

The Illinois Monetary Award Program (MAP) for college student grants will see an additional $3 million in funding.

A few specific programs for children will actually see a modest increase in funding under the spending plan.

The Teen REACH afterschool program will receive a 7 percent budgetary increas, or an additional $583,000. Also an extra $8.6 million will go to the Child Care Assistance Program, which provides low-income families access to affordable child care.

The Early Intervention program, which provides services for families with children aged 3 and younger with diagnosed disabilities or developmental delays, will see a 4 percent increase of $2.8 million.

Laurene Heybach, director of the law project at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, said she was upset to learn that $3 million in state funding for competitive, homeless student education grants was not added to the budget.

The funds served more than 30 Illinois school districts in 2009, but the funds have not been renewed since that time. Once the grant money ran out, federal stimulus money helped to sustain the program, but that money has also dried up.

ISBE called for the restoration of the $3 million in state funding for the program in its 2014 budget request, while Quinn's budget proposal did not.

"This was not funded even at a modest level, and I think that's awful," she said, adding that the number of homeless students in the state is growing.

But the legislature did level fund a number of other programs serving the homeless, she noted.

"So it's not all bleak," Heybach said. "But specifically, with respect to the education of homeless kids, (lawmakers) are not responding to that need."

Read Progress Illinois' full report on the homeless student education program here.

Budget Divide

Democrats say the overall budget plan is an honest approach to addressing the state’s liabilities while funding key priorities.

But according to the Republicans' analysis, the proposal leads to spending increases of nearly $2 billion for next year. Republicans say the increased spending comes as the state continues to grapple with paying down its backlog of unpaid bills, which could hit $7.5 billion by August.

Sessy Nyman, vice president of policy and strategic partnerships at Illinois Action for Children, said from what she observed in Springfield during the budget process, there was a bipartisan effort. Republicans were cut out at the very end, however. 

"There was an informed process throughout that was from both sides of the aisle, but then at the end of the day, the Democrats said, 'OK we have to get down, and we have to put pen to paper,' and that ... seems to be where the bipartisanship ended," she explained.

The vote for the education spending bills in the House and Senate fell along party lines.

Some Republican senators said the K-12 education spending measure continues to funnel a disproportionate amount of tax dollars to CPS.

“A spending plan is evidence of your values and priorities. My Democrat colleagues say they are committed to funding education, yet this budget reflects the value that some kids in some areas are more important than some kids in other areas,” said State Sen. Dale Righter (R-Mattoon) in a statement.

State Sen. Jason Barickman (R-Bloomington) echoed Righter’s concerns and urged that the inequity to rural, downstate districts be corrected.

“Poor families live in Chicago and Pontiac and Bloomington and Cairo,” Barickman said in a statement. “But, with their failure to act, Democrats in the Senate believe it’s perfectly acceptable to spend more money on poor children in Chicago and less on poor children across the state. It’s disgraceful.”

But Joseph said the funding inequality criticism is "fundamentally misconceived."

"If you look at overall spending for the state board or spending for any particular program, the Chicago Public Schools gets the largest amount by far, because they have the largest school district by far," he explained.

What needs to be looked at when comparing school districts, Joseph said, is the amount school districts receive in general state aid per pupil.

In the current fiscal year, per pupil funding on average was about $2,200, Joseph said. In CPS, it was about $3,100. But for Decatur's school district it was about $4,600 and East St. Louis' funding was $7,700, to name a few.

"They're above the state average on a per pupil basis, but they're nowhere near the top," Joseph said. "So the idea that Chicago gets the lion's share or [a] disproportionate share of state aid is just not true."

Looking Ahead

Garcia said the fight to restore funding for early childhood education is not over yet.

“We need to continue looking at other sources of revenue in order to make sure education gets to a higher priority from the state, but at this point, considering all the financial issues the state faced, we think that (level funding) is not a bad outcome,” Garcia added.

Nyman said it is also important to think more broadly about what young children need in order to be successful, such as quality mental health and community supports.

But overall, what was not accomplished during the spring legislative session is as important, or more important, than what was done, Joseph explained.

The Illinois General Assembly was not able to pass pension reform, and until they do, pension costs are going to continue to consume more of the general fund's budget, he noted.

"This year, about 1 out of every 4 state tax dollars (goes) for pension costs, and that's just not sustainable," he said.

The state also needs to reduce, and eventually eliminate, its huge backlog of bills. Also, during fiscal year 2015, the state will be facing a "steep fiscal cliff," because the current income tax rates are scheduled to roll back partially, causing a massive revenue loss, Joseph noted.

Beyond 2014, if the pension funding issue is not addressed, and if the state does not maintain its income tax revenue, the state will be in "big, big trouble," Joseph said.

Image: Enviroblog.com

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