PI Original Ellyn Fortino Thursday October 20th, 2016, 12:31pm

Illinois Spending On K-12 Education Higher Than Pre-Recession Levels, Report Finds

Most states are spending less on K-12 education now than they did before the Great Recession. Illinois, however, is among the exceptions, according to a new report.

Illinois is among only 13 states that is currently spending more on K-12 funding per student than prior to the Great Recession, according to a new report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP).

Researchers examined the most current U.S. Census Bureau data and state budget documents.

They found that most states -- 35 to be exact -- provided less total funding per student in the 2014 school year than in the 2008 school year, which was just "before the Great Recession took hold." In 20 states, the funding difference exceeded 10 percent.

Just 13 states, including Illinois, provided more per-student funding from 2008 to 2014, the most current year of available data. In Illinois, total per-student funding was 23 percent higher than in 2008 -- the second-largest increase among the states behind North Dakota.

Arizona made the deepest cut to overall per-student funding, at 36.6 percent, followed by Idaho at 22.6 percent and Alabama at 22.2 percent. The figures were adjusted for inflation and enrollment.

"Public investment in K-12 schools, which are crucial for communities to thrive and the U.S. economy to offer broad opportunity, has declined dramatically in a number of states in recent years," report co-author Michael Leachman said on a conference call with reporters. "Worse, most of the deepest-cutting states also cut income tax rates, weakening the primary revenue source for state support for schools.

"These trends are very concerning to the country's future prospects," he continued. "The health of the nation's economy and our quality of life will depend crucially on the creativity and intellectual capacity of our people. If we neglect our schools, we diminish our future."

Two states, Hawaii and Indiana, were excluded from the report due to a lack of available data.

The figures for total state K-12 funding per student, which are based on Census Bureau data, come with a caveat.

Data for 11 states, including Illinois, included payments made to their respective public school retirement systems. Leachman said the Census Bureau was unable to pull out the pension payments from the data for those states.

That could be at least one reason why Illinois is shown as having the second largest increase in total per-student K-12 funding since 2008.

The report also looked at state "general aid" funding formulas, and how they have changed since 2008. For that analysis, researchers were able to use data from the current school year. 

Illinois was among 24 states that have increased their per-student funding formula since 2008. Specifically, the increase in Illinois was 4.2 percent from 2008 to the current school year. On the flip side, at least 23 states have decreased their per-student funding formula since 2008. In seven of those 23 states, the cuts exceeded 10 percent. 

Nineteen states cut their per-student general funding in the current budget year compared to last year, the report found. 

"Some of these states, including Oklahoma, Kansas and North Carolina, already were among the deepest-cutting states since the recession hit," Leachman noted.

Twenty-eight states, including Illinois, raised their per-student general funding this year. Of those 28 states, 16 saw their per-student funding surpass pre-recession levels before the 2016 increase.

"But among the other 12 states, only two -- Illinois and South Dakota -- raised funding enough in the last year to make up for cuts in earlier years," the report states. "For example, Alabama's $168 per-pupil increase this year was far from enough to offset the state's $1,082 per-pupil cut over the previous eight years."

Leachman said there are four key reasons why several states have cut funding so deeply.

First, state revenues continue to be impacted by the recession and slow recovery. Federal aid for schools has also fallen as education and other costs in state budgets have increased since 2008. And states, Leachman said, have disproportionately relied on "spending cuts to close the very large budget shortfall they faced after the recession hit, rather than a more balanced mix of spending cuts and revenue increases."

Leachman said state cuts to K-12 investments have "damaging consequences" for local school districts. He explained that nearly half, or 47 percent, of total education spending in the United States comes from state funds.

The report shows that education funding cuts have led to the loss of 221,000 K-12 education jobs from 2008 to the third quarter of 2016. The job losses came amid rising student enrollment, which increased by 1.1 million since 2008.

"Cuts at the state level mean that local school districts have to either scale back the educational services that they provide, raise more local tax revenue to cover the gap, or both," Leachman said. "If local school districts could easily raise the money necessary to replace large amounts of lost state aid on their own, then the damage wouldn't be so great. But that's not the case. 

One piece of good news is that many real estate markets across the country have experienced continued improvement, Leachman said. As such, it is now "somewhat easier for school districts to raise more money from the property tax."

The downside: "For most areas with deep state aid cuts, the improvements at the local level have not been enough to make up the difference," he said.

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