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A local example of a state problem

The Sterling Public Schools is poised to leave the Bi-County Special Education Cooperative.

That may sound like a bunch of bureaucratic mumbo jumbo, but this pending divorce could have some real effects. Years ago, districts started these cooperatives so that they could provide better services to children with special needs.

The co-ops spread the high expense of special education among a number of districts; though economies of scale, they can reduce per-student costs. It's especially expensive for smaller school districts to provide such services, which is why cooperatives are so important for students and taxpayers.

It turn out, though, that bigger districts are often subsidizing smaller ones.

That's why the larger ones sometimes leave the cooperatives, as the Sterling district is considering doing. That's also why the cash-rich Byron district left the Ogle County Educational Cooperative.

Drew Hoffman, the head of the Bi-County Special Education Cooperative, is optimistic that Sterling's departure wouldn't have much impact.

But when the biggest district leaves, it'll certainly hurt the more rural ones – and their special education students.

This is more than just a local issue. It goes to the heart of Illinois' school financing problem.

According to a recent study, Illinois was among the least equitable states for school financing.

The funding per student for a district with no poverty is $11,082, more than a district with 30 percent poverty, $9,662, according to the study.

If anything, students in high-poverty districts need more money. And some states make sure that happens – by having nearly all school tax revenue go to state coffers, where it's divided up based on a per-student funding formula.

Often, that funding formula includes more money for each special education student, which makes a lot of sense.

In Illinois, a large portion of school funding comes from local property taxes. In a poorer district, that means less money for the schools, putting students at an immediate disadvantage.

In the 1990s, the state tried to address these inequities through general state aid, intending to make sure each district had a minimum amount of money for each student. According to the state Illinois School Board of Education's website, that aid provides about 65 percent of funding for schools. But that minimum amount is falling, especially in light of the state's overwhelming pension obligations.

Under a state funding formula, richer districts end up subsidizing poorer districts. In special education cooperatives, some members inevitably put in more than they receive.

The idea behind all these subsidies is simple: Each student gets an equal opportunity.

David Giuliani is a reporter for Sauk Valley Media. He can be reached at dgiuliani@saukvalley or at 800-798-4085, ext. 525. 


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