Creating a More Equitable Funding Formula: Illinois Leads for Equity

image of students drawing

By Tony Smith, Illinois State Board of Education 

Language has both real and symbolic power. The way state education agencies use language about equity, inclusiveness, and deservingness is one of the most powerful tools we have. With the passage of ESSA, state education agencies have an explicit opportunity to lead work in our states to ensure that each and every child is thriving.     

For example, rather than saying “at risk” students, it is more factual to say “students we have put at risk.” Over many decades, policymakers and decision-makers have concentrated poverty and concentrated wealth in our communities. Our public schools are nested in those communities. Adult decisions about where resources go, or don’t, have resulted in greater or fewer opportunities for our students.

I am very proud to say that Illinois enacted a radically different and more equitable school funding formula on August 31, 2017. After years of intense work, the general assembly and the governor reached an agreement that ensuring excellent outcomes for students requires uncommon and differentiated financial support. The formula codifies for the first time ever in statue the resources all students deserve – from counselors and librarians to technology and summer school – and says adequate funding means each district can afford these resources for all their students. 

Illinois’ Evidence-Based Funding for Student Success Act takes significant steps toward fulfilling the fifth equity commitment in CCSSO’s Leading for Equity report that we as state chiefs came together and committed to in 2017: Follow the Money: Allocate Resources to Achieve Fiscal Equity.

Beyond the dollars and cents, Illinois’ new funding formula reshapes the way we can talk about our values and priorities as a state. For the first time, we can have an honest conversation about inequity and fairness. The formula accounts for the unique needs and resources of local school districts. Based on this common measure, we now know districts in Illinois are funded at a range of 46 to 283 percent of full capacity to meet expectations.

We are one year and an additional $395 million down the path to fulfilling the promise of fair access to quality for all students. All students deserve the same high expectations – and all students, regardless of where they are situated in Illinois, deserve the individual resources and supports to meet those expectations. To provide 100 percent funding for the supports described in Illinois statute for all districts requires an investment of $7.2 billion more.

We are now including each district’s financial capacity to meet expectations on the Illinois Report Card, alongside the data about academic performance, beginning this October. By doing this, we can learn from those districts that are outperforming their financial capacity and use those lessons to support those that are not. The opportunities for collaboration and sharing practice have increased with common language, common expectations, and more honesty about where our schools are situated. With this insight, we can better coach every district to maximize supports for the whole child.

We expect the children in the district funded at 46 percent of adequacy to achieve all of our statewide goals. That district has increased Advanced Placement access and is doing remarkable work with students. Imagine what they could do for their students if they were fully and fairly funded.

Shared language about deservingness is essential. Illinois now has a law that says what every child deserves as an adequate baseline for healthy academic and social growth. Creating schools in every community where every child is included, allows them to feel a deep sense of belonging, and experience the unanimous expectation that they will succeed is the cornerstone of our future civic and economic health. Now we have to invest in that future.

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