Pritzker’s proposed budget keeps Illinois school funding flat for a second year

J.B. Pritzker spoke to Chicago high school students in October alongside his running mate, Lieutenant Governor candidate Juliana Stratton.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced an operating budget of $41.7 billion on Wednesday. The kindergarten to 12th grade education budget will remain stagnant for a second year due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images)

Illinois will not increase its budget for education for a second year despite advocates’ concerns that a stagnant budget could make it difficult to address lost learning due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Facing down a $3 billion budget deficit, Gov. J.B. Pritzker laid out plans Wednesday for a 2022 state operating budget of $41.7 billion that does not increase taxes for residents but relies on hiring freezes and the closure of a series of corporate tax loopholes. The state’s education budget for kindergarten to 12th grade will remain stagnant at almost $9 billion with no increase to the evidence-based funding formula. 

The budget plan keeps funding for early learning and higher education mostly flat, too, but the governor outlined Wednesday some modest increases to the Monetary Award Program, or MAP, that provides grants for low-income college students.  

Pritzker said that in drafting his budget proposal he prioritized agencies on the frontlines of the COVID-19 response that are addressing public health and unemployment. Ultimately, schools will see a boost of funding, he said, due to $2.8 billion in emergency federal dollars for education. 

“In March of 2020, I promised schools that they wouldn’t lose funding because of the pandemic, and this budget keeps that promise. The federal government has made extraordinary efforts to support schools during this time, with $2.8 billion allocated to schools thus far – and more is expected,” Pritzker said. 

“No schools will have to reduce spending,” he promised, “and they can instead focus on meeting the needs of students who have tried to learn in a chaotic and trying time.”

Pritzker also said Wednesday he hoped that schools would use some federal emergency dollars to “follow the Biden plan for restoring safe in-person learning.” 

The proposed budget will head to the state’s general assembly to be approved in the March legislative session. 

Pritzker’s proposal to keep the state education budget flat comes at a critical time for schools. Last month, the Illinois State Board of Education recommended that the state increase the almost $9 billion budget by $412 million for the next school year to adequately fund schools statewide and help districts deal with potential learning loss from school shutdowns and uneven remote learning experiences. 

With no new money for the funding formula, some advocates are worried about longer-term disruption to a bipartisan effort to direct more money toward public education after years of chronic underfunding. In 2017, the state revamped the way it funds school districts, earmarking additional money each year to systems with the highest need. Key to that effort was a bipartisan promise to grow the state’s education budget by at least $350 million a year. This is the second straight year that no more new money will be added to the formula. 

Whether the state could see a third round of federal funding for schools, and end up meeting that pledge, remains unclear.

Public education advocates warn that plugging gaps with federal funding shortchanges an underfunded system at a time when costs are rising due to the coronavirus response. Superintendents have said they must spend more on smaller class sizes, cleaning and sanitizing schools, hiring contact tracers, and other health and safety protocols related to the pandemic.

“It is true that there are federal funds coming to help schools reopen,” said Robin Steans, President of Advance Illinois, a nonprofit policy and advocacy organization. But, she adds, “we have got to get state dollars to do the deeper structural work. What you can’t do with federal funds is make long-term staffing changes and programmatic changes that school districts need in order to truly serve children well and close equity gaps.”

Steans acknowledged Pritzker’s record as an advocate for public education and the extent of the financial challenges facing the state. The governor pledged to invest more money in public schools last year — but that pledge hinged on voters approving a graduated income tax that would have raised income taxes on the wealthiest residents. It was expected to bring an additional $1.4 billion in revenue annually. Voters did not pass the amendment.

Mimi Rodman, executive director for Stand for Children, said that not increasing the budget is actually a budget cut because it does not account for inflation and, with two years of cuts, it will limit the kinds of resources available to students. 

“The extent of learning loss for students in Illinois is going to continue to be revealed over the next few months. We don’t even know about the impacts on social emotional learning, reading and math across the state and across different demographics,” said Rodman. 

She continued, “If we can, right now, renew our commitment to stay with the promise of the evidence-based funding formula, we are also investing and addressing those future disparities before they start revealing themselves.”

Public education advocates throughout the country have warned that the coronavirus pandemic will have major consequences on states’ education budgets. However, those dire warnings have yet to materialize as the federal government so far has passed two stimulus efforts that included emergency money for schools. 

Governors in some other states have also proposed flat education budgets or spending plans that similarly rely on federal emergency money to help make up for budget shortfalls. Tennessee’s budget largely remains flat, but the budget includes modest raises for teachers. In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo cut state contributions for schools but said additional federal dollars would actually yield budget increases.

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