As Illinois lawmakers continue to allow a $100 billion pension funding crisis to fester, a potentially larger funding problem threatens to push the state into deeper economic woes.
As legislators in Indiana and Wisconsin consider ways to increase funding for their respective schools, their Illinois counterparts might have to — again — cut money for education.
Brain power fuels today’s economy. Excellent schools attract more jobs, which in turn creates more revenue for all aspects of government. And the opportunity for innovation generated by those educated in excellent schools holds the potential for even greater growth.
Yet Illinois lawmakers can’t figure out a way to even pay the full $6,119 per student as mandated by law. Instead, school districts across the state must hope for the best, never really knowing how much money the state might provide or when it might arrive. According to the Chicago Tribune, the average spent per pupil is $11,664, a number skewed greatly by district’s where poverty levels are low and property values high. When the state fails to provide even its minimum, the gap between affluent and not-so affluent school districts widens.
The situation simply is inexcusable.
The first step toward a solution is for the General Assembly to fix the state’s pension problem, and then to keep whatever funding promises are part of the solution. The cause of the problem rests squarely on lawmakers who diverted funds away from the pension plan to more politically advantageous destinations. Newly paved highways get more votes than a funded pension plan or better schools.
Then lawmakers must make a commitment to propel Illinois schools into the nation’s top tier for performance and support. According to a 2010 study by Rutgers University and the Education Law Center in New Jersey, Illinois ranks among the bottom three states in terms of education funding fairness. And the problem has worsened since then.
Without a concerted effort to improve Illinois schools — and their funding — the state can expect to see more jobs go to their Midwestern neighbors who recognize the value of a strong education system.