By BILL KEMP
Finding a method (not a formula)
A dark and well-publicized cloud of disparity hangs over the state's current method of funding schools. Because of the disparity in per-pupil spending between rich and poor districts, almost 50 school districts have jointly filed a lawsuit (The Committee for Educational Rights v James Edgar) to have the state's method of funding schools declared unconstitutional.
An overlooked but equally important issue lurks in the background of the school finance picture — adequacy. Instead of the inequity between the haves and have-nots, adequacy aims to measure whether or not each district has "at least enough." Researchers for the Illinois State Board of Education have spent the last year Grafting a methodology for determining the cost of an adequate, regular education.
The state board's analysis to determine the cost of a basic education could have far-reaching effects for education in Illinois. A State Board of Education and its superintendent wielding a measure of adequacy would introduce a new element into the yearly, tumultuous debate over state funding for education.
"Traditionally, we have let the funding level shape the programs by starting with a dollar amount and working backward," said state Supt. Robert Leininger. "This [adequacy] method, for the first time, will allow us to start with assumptions about what constitutes an adequate — not nominal — regular education program, then project costs.'' In other words, education advocates could approach the General Assembly with a specific dollar amount for education's annual funding request, rather than a request that is simply a percentage increase over last year's appropriation level. "Hopefully, the funding numbers will finally mean something," said George Evans, the primary architect of the state board's adequacy measurement and a former superintendent for Normal Unit School District 5. "Using the methodology, we can go to the legislature and say, 'This is what it will take to adequately educate the school children of Illinois,' " he said. Just how the General Assembly will react is uncertain, Evans said. But a measurement of adequacy will give the education community additional ammunition in the ongoing struggle for more state dollars.
Failure to define and assign a cost figure to adequacy in the past has left a significant gap in the state's school finance puzzle. The Task Force on School Finance, a group of legislators and private citizens organized last session as a response to the then-pending lawsuit, is directing Evans' research. Under a resolution introduced by Sen. John Maitland (R-44, Bloomington), the task force was charged to "determine the inequities of the current method of funding elementary and secondary education and to devise a new plan which shall ensure adequate state funding for all school districts in Illinois at a greater level than the current system provides." This Herculean task is headed by several influential shapers of state education policy, including Sens. Maitland and Arthur Berman (D-2, Chicago). The task force also has the input of Gene Hoffman, a former Republican state representative from Elmhurst, and Lt. Gov. Bob Kustra.
The principles that shape Evans' methodology for determining adequacy are not overly complex. He first dissected the staff composition and expenditures of about a dozen widely respected and successful school districts. In this field research, Evans examined a representative range of schools, including a rural unit district in the state's west central area and an elementary district in the northern suburbs of Chicago.
Using the State Board of Education's target (ideal) class sizes, Evans' formula first makes assumptions about certified staff needs and class sizes. For example, the state board's target size
Instead of the inequity between the haves and the have-nots, adequacy aims to measure whether or not each district has 'at least enough'
for a kindergarten through sixth grade classroom is 23 students. The board also specifies an ideal ratio of one physical education teacher per 250 students and one librarian per 650 students, At the high school level, Evans breaks down class sizes into various subject areas, such as 23 students per English class, 21 for social science and 60 for study hall. Data collected by the state board indicate that salaries for personnel account for 54 percent of total expenditures statewide. Using that percentage and the latest salary averages, Evans calculates the cost of an adequate education. He used this identical methodology to determine the costs of an adequate education for low-income special education and gifted education students.
26/May 1991/Illinois Issues
His methodology accounts for regional cost differences by employing a model created by Walter McMahon, an economist at the University of Illinois. McMahon, using regional cost differences for products and services, concludes that there is an overall cost difference of approximately 55 percent between the lowest and highest counties. For example, if an adequate elementary education in rural Greene County in western Illinois cost $3,102 per pupil, the same adequate education would cost $4,654 in Cook County.
G. Alan Hickrod, director of the Center for the Study of Educational Finance at Illinois State University and a prominent leader in the funding lawsuit, said adequacy and equity are cut from the same cloth. "What we have in Illinois is an adequacy problem that creates inequities," Hickrod said. An attempt to reach adequacy would raise the per-pupil expenditures of the low-spending districts. "The line between equity and adequacy can be blurred," he said. Some educators have advocated a legislative Robin Hood approach whereby the state could take money from the rich districts and give to the poor. The State Board of Education under Leininger opposes this so-called "top-down, bottom-up" approach. He said that the state must leave the top-spending districts alone and help bring up the bottom rung districts. An adequacy measure is an equitable method of raising those troubled districts, Leininger said, agreeing with Hickrod.
State officials have attached several caveats to their adequacy measure. Carol Richardson, the State Board of Education's assistant superintendent for school finance, stresses that the method is not intended to be a mechanism or formula to distribute funds. In fact, State Board of Education officials shun the "formula" label, preferring instead to call this a "methodology." Proponents of the measure also stress it will not mandate class sizes, salaries or learning outcomes. "It's not a standard," said Evans. "It does not describe standards or criteria. It's not intended to judge schools or hold them accountable," said Leininger.
Partly because the adequacy methodology is still being developed and partly because they are wary of bad publicity from "sticker shock," Evans and state officials are unwilling to affix an early price tag on adequacy. According to Hickrod, the cost estimates of meeting various adequacy and/or equity measures range from $1 billion to $4 billion new state dollars. To meet Evans' adequacy measure would cost about $1 billion, according to a preliminary estimate by Hickrod. Whether the new dollars will come from either the state or local school districts is an issue to be addressed politically. Maitland said the task force has taken the high road by casting aside political and fiscal considerations. He said others on the task force wanted a fiscally restrained adequacy measurement. "Should we design only a program we can afford?" asked Maitland. "Hell no. We design a program that adequately educates children across the width and breadth of this state. Then we try to sell the plan."
Hickrod and others say Evans' measurement doesn't go far enough. "Evans' procedure defines adequate as average," Hickrod said. He points out that Evans' research and his assumptions were pulled from the existing framework of schools that may or may not be models for other schools. Evans acknowledged that his measurement relies exclusively on current education practices. "The methodology is not based on anything other than what's available," he said. Hickrod said there are other methods to determine adequacy, the catch being that they would potentially cost additional billions of dollars. One method of determining adequacy, Hickrod said, would be to convene a panel of education experts and create a hypothetical ideal school. The panel could then "cost out" the dream school. But Hickrod said, given the real world of state politics and scarce state dollars, "Evans' procedure is as politically realistic as anything I can think of."
Some educators have advocated a legislative Robin Hood approach whereby the state could take money from the rich districts and give it to the poor
The issue of adequacy is receiving increasing attention in education circles, though it is far from eclipsing equity as the hottest education buzzword in Illinois. At a February session of the Education Policy Assembly, a group of 16 organizations such as the Chicago Urban League, the Illinois Farm Bureau, the State Chamber of Commerce and the Taxpayers' Federation of Illinois, the issue of adequacy was highlighted in a statement on education finance: "The state foundation level for schools should be determined by the costs of providing a high quality educational program for all students with a recognition of regional cost differences and the excess costs of educating children with special needs."
Maitland acknowledges that it would be politically and fiscally prudent to phase in the expected billion dollar-plus price tag over several fiscal years, perhaps beginning in fiscal year 1993 or 1994. All this talk about state dollars makes the State Board of Education jittery. "Let's not get hung up on this dollar figure," Board President Louis Mervis warned members of the State Board of Education's legislative and finance committee in January. "The final number is not important — it's the method of going about it that is," said Leininger.
Maitland, a self-described "eternal optimist," said the task force will present its findings to the General Assembly in late spring, in time for both chambers to debate the group's findings. He said the legislative leadership could reach an agreement on some of the task force's provisions this session. Despite Maitland's confidence, Statehouse observers say that any landmark education reform, including an adequacy measurement, is a safer bet for 1992.
Bill Kemp is a staff writer for the Illinois Times in Springfield.
May 1991/Illinois Issues/27