Rep. Camille Y. Lilly | File

The first meeting of State Rep. Camille Y. Lilly’s (78th) Education Taskforce was held June 27 at the Austin branch library, 5615 W. Race Ave., in Austin. Participants discussed a proposed bill that would change the way the state funds K-12 schools, among other issues. 

The taskforce, Lilly said, will is designed to come up with ideas that would inform education-related policies. The West Side lawmaker is a member of the House Elementary & Secondary Education Committee.

At last Monday’s meeting, Lilly — whose district includes parts of the West Side, Elmwood Park, Melrose Park, Franklin Park, Oak Park and River Grove — was particularly interested in hearing residents’ opinions about a controversial education bill.

State Sen. Andy Manar’s (48th) school funding bill would create a single formula for how the state divides up funding between school districts. The basic amount would depend on how much district can raise on its own through taxes, so the less tax revenue it gets, the more money it would get from the state.

Districts with more low-income students and English-language learners would get more money. And for the first time ever, the state would partially cover the pension obligations of Chicago Public Schools. Wealthier districts, such as those in places like Oak Park and River Forest, may potentially lose funding as a result of Manar’s bill.

Lilly and other participants in the taskforce meeting, however, sought out ways of persuading residents in those wealthier school districts to support Manar’s reform. They also critiqued the school funding status quo.

Kris Reichmann, an Oak Park education consultant and activist, told meeting attendees that the problem with the current school funding formula is that it doesn’t take differences in various district’s tax bases into account.

The districts where property values are high can get more through property taxes than districts where property values are lower. Even when less well-off districts raise property taxes, she said, there is only so much money they can get.

Reichmann noted that the current formula puts both urban and rural districts, as well as some suburban districts like West Aurora School District 129, at a disadvantage.

“We want to make sure education is a priority, that education is funded at the level it needs to be funded,” Lilly said.

“If you look at the [CPS], we are one of the most diverse districts in United States,” she said. “That means we have a lot of unique opportunities [to work together].”

Darius Ballinger, a student at the University of Illinois at Chicago who is interning for Lilly this summer, shared with attendees his experiences attending CPS, particularly in light of the district’s financial difficulties. Ballinger said he was directly affected by the state’s school funding challenges.

As a child growing up in Bronzeville, he was expelled from two CPS high schools. The first time, he said, was because some of his friends got into a fight and he happened to be nearby; the second time was because he got into a fight himself.

“The second time I got into an altercation, there was no counseling; just expulsion,” je said, adding that the CPS schools he attended didn’t have any counselors.

Debra Kern, a Chicago educator, said Ballinger “should have gotten some help” and that “someone should have heard your story. Someone should have helped you succeed.”

Ballinger said that trying to persuade residents of well-off communities to support Manar’s bill wasn’t going to get the bill anywhere. The key, he said, was to build political power in communities that are hurt under the current system.

“We can’t accept a system that’s been crafted like this to bail us out,” he said. “We need to look at the advocacy coalition. Let [everyone] know that you have a strong political capital. The advocacy has to be very strong. If you aren’t heard, you’ll always be outside [the process].”

Jarron Long, a current CPS student, said that it was important to inform people about what educational issues and pending legislative reforms. He also echoed Ballinger’s statements about the importance of mobilizing residents in downtrodden communities, a tactic, Lilly said, that is already in action and has already worked to a degree.

“A lot of what we do [in the Illinois General Assembly] came from the advocacy of people like yourselves,” she said. Lilly noted that she plans on holding another task force meeting later this month. 

Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Austin Weekly News since 2015. His work has also appeared...