As Illinois' current funding fight continues between Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and the Democratic lawmakers who control both chambers of the state's General Assembly, huge sums of taxpayer money are being lost in the state's public schools, members of a key House education committee said.
State Rep. Robert Pritchard, R-Sycamore, said a big problem is that the state is supporting too many school districts, and more than a few communities have been reluctant to give up their respective districts to join larger. consolidated school systems.
At 859 independent school districts, Illinois has the fifth-largest number of school districts in the nation that absorb approximately $18 billion in local property taxes annually.
"People want to keep their school district, whether it's just a small rural district or even some of the small suburban districts that we have," Pritchard, who sits on the House Elementary and Secondary Education School Curriculum Policies Committee, said.
Then again, preaching the shared benefits of consolidation is often a challenge for lawmakers who typically decry bigger government and extol the virtues of local decision-making, Pritchard said.
"If you believe in local control, then you have to believe in local control," Pritchard said. "I know districts that have tried to share or consolidate, and they couldn't convince their communities. When they went to a referendum, the referendum was defeated."
When compared with 14 peer states that each educate at least 1 million students, Illinois, which averages 2,400 students per district, appears to be managing its resources poorly.
Florida averages 40,012 students per district, while Georgia, North Carolina, California and Virginia each serve more than twice the that Illinois districts.
Over 60 percent of the districts in Illinois contain just 14 percent of the state's overall students. Put another way, the 511 school districts in question serve an average of 526 students.
On the other hand, more than three-fourths of Illinois' 872 superintendents earn six-figure salaries, and 320 of Illinois school district administrators, mostly district superintendents, are awarded annual incomes of $200,000 or more.
The state must re-consider whether it's wise to "continue to fund very small school districts that don't have the capacity to educate students the way they are needed for the 21st Century," Pritchard said.