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Illinois' Legislative Session Wraps: Here's Our Update

  ·  Martin V. Torres

While the spring legislative session closed on May 31 with frustrating indecision on several critical issues—pension reform, same-sex marriage, state-run health insurance, and a gambling expansion among them—the Latino Policy Forum and other advocates are heartened by the passage of a FY14 state budget that protects funding for education and vital human services.
Thanks to the leadership of the appropriation chairs who oversee the education budget in the Senate and House, lawmakers approved an elementary and secondary education budget that increased the state’s investment in our children by 2 percent.  On the surface, the news is very positive: the total appropriation allows the state to maintain funding for significant items in the education budget. However, further budget analysis reveals mixed results for Illinois students:
General State Aid
While $155.4 million was added to the Illinois’ General State Aid (GSA) line item, which ensures that all Illinois students receive at least the foundation level of per-pupil funding, monies are still insufficient to meet funding obligations and will create a shortfall for the fifth consecutive year.  As a result, the state will continue to fund GSA claims at 89 percent of the total amount owed to Illinois schools, further straining budgets in low-income districts. And even the partial restoration of funds will not diminish the state’s proration to school districts because monies are being used to offset revenue lost in the funding formula as a result of falling property values. 
Given the state’s fiscal climate and the total decline in pre-k-12 education spending since FY09, there was considerable dialogue among lawmakers, state officials, and advocates concerning the manner in which Illinois funds public education.  Data shows that prorating school districts’ GSA claims has a disproportionate effect on high-poverty, low property wealth school districts.  According to a recent brief issued by Advance Illinois: “The 20 percent of students who attend the poorest school districts are losing the most under proration, roughly $160 million this year. The 20 percent of students who attend school districts with the fewest poor students are losing $30 million.”  In recognition of Illinois’ school funding woes, the legislature passed a joint resolution, SJR 32, which creates a legislative task force responsible for reviewing the existing funding methods and submitting recommendations on how to improve this process moving forward. 
Early Childhood Education
Due in part to fantastic advocacy efforts from parentsproviders, and other stakeholders, the legislature maintained funding for the Early Childhood Block Grant (ECBG), allocating just over $300 million for FY14.  While total spending for the ECBG is still $80 million lower than the height of funding for early childhood education (ECE) in FY09, the FY14 appropriation turns the tide on two consecutive years of cuts.  More importantly, the ECE investment provides stability for the nearly 74,000 children projected to be served in FY13 by the state’s Preschool for All program. 
Bilingual Education
The legislature also maintained resources for bilingual education for FY14, marking the third consecutive year the appropriation has been held at just over $63 million.  While avoiding additional cuts to bilingual education is important, the per-pupil value of these resources has greatly diminished given the growing number of Illinois children eligible to receive services beginning in preschool. 
English Language Learners (ELLs) now account for 9 percent of all public school students, a proportion that has grown over time due to a 26% increase in the number of ELLs since 2004.  During the 2011 school year, public schools in 88 of Illinois’ 102 counties enrolled ELLs, making state funding for bilingual education a critical revenue source throughout the state.  The total decline in state support for bilingual education since FY09 has limited school districts’ ability to provide critical professional development opportunities for their teachers, administrators, and principals. 
While funding for bilingual education remains a challenge, lawmakers acknowledged the value of bilingualism and biliteracy this spring by passing SB 1221, legislation that creates a State Seal of Biliteracy for high school graduates who demonstrate proficiency in a language other than English.  The State Seal of Biliteracy will be designated on the diplomas and transcripts of students who earn the recognition beginning in the 2014-2015 school year.  Although school district participation is voluntary, the seal will encourage students throughout the state to pursue the study of languages other than English. 
Human Services
The Child Care Assistance Program 
Thanks to higher than expected revenue, lawmakers were able to craft a human services budget that protects early care and education programs from additional cuts in FY14.  For example, state funding for the Child Care Assistance Program (CCAP) was increased by $7.9 million, which will enable the state to maintain its caseload.  While working parents continue to express frustration with eligibility changes that have made CCAP more expensive and less accessible in recent years, the stability provided to families through the FY14 child care appropriation is a positive step forward.
Home-Visiting Programs
High-quality home visiting programs support parents before and after childbirth in building the cognitive, health, and social-emotional foundations for their children’s development.  These programs are particularly effective and vital for at-risk parents facing the challenges of parenthood while grappling with teen pregnancy, poverty, low levels of maternal education, or linguistic isolation.  Thankfully, funding for the Parents Too Soon and Healthy Families home-visiting programs was maintained in FY14 at $6.9 and $10 million respectively. 
The state’s Early Intervention (EI) program also received a slight increase of $2.8 million in order to maintain current levels of service.  For young children with developmental delays or disabilities, early identification and intervention are essential.  Factors such as prematurity, low birth weight, illness, or surgery soon after birth increase the risk of developmental delay or disability.  The EI system provides services and supports to promote the best possible developmental outcomes for children, while enhancing the capacity of families to meet their child’s needs. 

Posted In: Education, State Investment