BIPARTISAN COMMITTEE TACKLES EDUCATION FORMULA
Last week the bipartisan Senate Advisory Committee on Education Funding met in Springfield to hear testimony from the Illinois State Board of Education and others. The committee was formed after a Senate Republican study of school funding in Illinois was released earlier in the Spring. The report drew attention to shifts in school-aid funding and called into question school financing decisions that have been largely made behind closed doors and without public scrutiny.
School funding in Illinois is a complex and multi-faceted system involving several funding formulas that, in recent years, have been skewed so that some districts benefit disproportionately. The general state-aid formula, created as a “resource equalizer” was intended to provide equal state funding to school districts across the state. Over the past decade specialized formulas for property tax and poverty grants have skyrocketed and core education funding has flatlined. As a result, more and more state dollars have been directed to schools in Chicago and away from downstate and suburban school districts with little or no debate among public policy makers.
One component of general state aid – property tax adjustments – saw a 1,267% increase from Fiscal Year 2000 to Fiscal Year 2012. Another component – poverty grants – increased by more than 400%. In contrast, general foundation grants actually fell by 6% during the same period.
One of the Committee’s goals will be to determine if the funding shifts have a fact-based foundation in education, or if they represent political decisions designed to steer funding to specific areas of the state.
The bulk of the committee’s first meeting was devoted to hearing testimony from the State Board of Education, which was able to confirm the trends outlined in the Senate GOP report.
The formula used by the state to allocate poverty grants to school districts is likely to be a contentious issue in upcoming hearings. Rather than use the federal government’s clear-cut income guidelines to define children in poverty, Illinois has elected to define poverty by using a child’s eligibility for other assistance programs. Additionally, the state follows a formula that heavily weights the amount of aid a school district receives based on the percentage of students in poverty.
Because of this weighting some districts receive nearly $3,000 for each child defined as poor while other school districts may only receive $355. Critics contend that while school districts with a high percentage of poverty students may need more money to educate students, the allocation formula appears to be arbitrary and based on political, not educational, considerations.
NEW LAW SETS SPEED LIMIT AT 70 MPH IN 2014
As of January 1 Illinois’ speed limit will increase to 70 MPH, bringing it in line with most of the rest of the country under a new Illinois law. Senate Bill 2356, co-sponsored by Senator Brady and a diverse group of lawmakers from both sides of the aisle, was signed into law on August 19 by the Governor.
The new law updates speed limits to reflect the reality of current driving speeds in Illinois and other states. Interstates were designed for a higher rate of speed, and currently, there are 34 states with speed limits of 70 mph or higher. All of Illinois’ neighboring states, except Wisconsin, have speed limits of 70 mph. Fifteen states have speed limits of 75 mph and one state has a speed limit of 85 mph.
At the request of the Illinois State Police, Senate Bill 2356 provides public safety enhancements in the form of a lowered threshold upon which the penalty for speeding is increased from a petty offense to a misdemeanor. Speeding in excess of 26 miles per hour but less than 35 mph (currently 31-40 mph) will be a Class B misdemeanor. Speeding in excess of 35 mph (currently 40 mph) will be a Class A misdemeanor.
Senate Bill 2356 also allows Cook County, the collar counties, Madison County and St. Clair County to opt out of the higher speed limit via ordinance.
The new law takes effect Jan. 1, 2014.
CELL PHONE DRIVING BAN
Illinois residents will no longer be allowed to talk on cell phones unless they utilize hands-free technology under a new law that takes effect on January 1. Illinois is one of about a dozen states with similar laws banning the use of cell phones while driving, and already has a prohibition in place for texting and driving.
Proponents say the new law will cut down on distracted driving, making Illinois roads safer. Opponents, however, argue that it should be up to drivers to exercise proper safety precautions instead of leaving this burden to the police who will enforce this new law. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has found little difference between safety of drivers who use hand-held cell phones and those who use hands-free devices.
Devices that are still allowed include Bluetooth headsets, speaker phone systems built into car stereos, and mounted cell phone holsters that allow a driver to use the speaker function on their phone without holding it. Additionally, drivers will still be legally allowed to make calls on hand-held phones in emergency situations.
Violators of the law will be fined $75 for a first offense. Fines of as much as $150 could be issued for repeat offenses, and offenders could face a moving violation on their driving record.