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Legislators: Poposed race-based funding formula for universities could violate civil rights

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(The Center Square) – Illinois Senate Republicans are urging for a subject matter hearing on Illinois’ ambitious plan for higher education funding, a plan that was revealed in March.

The complex formula is supposed to mirror the K-12 evidence-based funding that currently exists in Illinois. State Sen. Terri Bryant, R-Murphysboro, said it’s not the same as K-12 and the formula actually punishes public universities for receiving endowments.

“When you have university presidents coming into a Higher-Education Appropriations Committee hearing, and you have a president of one university look at you with a blank look on her face when you point out what they [the university] could lose if it isn’t funded properly, there’s a problem with the commission’s study,” said Bryant. “University presidents are saying, ‘hold on, you’re going to use the endowments against us?’”

State Sen. Chapin Rose, R-Mahomet, in a news conference Thursday, said that if implemented, the formula could violate civil rights.

“In this proposal there are equity tiers, which are designed quite frankly to address the failings of our K-12 school system that’s sending kids to our higher education system that aren’t ready for higher education, and we all agree there needs to be compensation for that,” said Rose. “But they’re doing it based on race on individual students.”

Rose said the new funding formula, created by a legislatively created commission of lawmakers and college officials, does not have compensation for Asian-Pacific Islanders.

During a senate committee hearing Wednesday, Rose asked University of Illinois President Timothy Killeen if he was prepared to lose federal funding. Rose said the new plan, if found unconstitutional, will cause the university to lose over $700 million.

Killeen said he didn’t think the university would lose that funding. However, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights website says “state school districts and schools must not intentionally treat students differently based upon race, color and national origin in providing educational resources.”

“This is clearly an educational resource [the funding provided through the proposed new formula]. It’s clearly an intent to do it based upon race,” said Rose.

The U.S. Supreme Court in June 2023 ruled affirmative action in higher education was unconstitutional, striking down race-based admissions programs at Harvard and the University of North Carolina.

Republican legislators said the ambitious public university funding plan for Illinois could impact research being done at universities that lead to life-saving treatments.

“During COVID, they [University of Illinois] invented that ventilator. The guys at Urbana went into a room and created a ventilator that costs like $10 to make,” said Rose. “If you lose your federal research dollars, accidentally, inadvertently, oops, we made a mistake, that is catastrophic.”

In March, when the new formula was introduced, Center for Tax and Budget Accountability Executive Director Ralph Martire joined Democrats and members of the Illinois Commission on Equitable Public University Funding and said universities are underfunded by $1.4 billion. While that is a significant price for taxpayers to pay, Martire said it’ll lead to economic growth.

“So creating a funding formula that both invests in all of our institutions and generates positive economic activity across the state, while stabilizing higher ed funding and addressing historic racism against Blacks seems like the logical, fair and right thing to do,” said Martire.

The Commission on Equitable Public University Funding, created by law in 2021, released a report that finds an additional $100 million to $135 million annually to public universities would allow the state to bridge the reported funding gap in 10 to 15 years.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s budget proposal for fiscal year 2025 increases public university spending by $24.6 million.

State legislators have yet to introduce a bill outlining the new model. Republicans said they fear legislation could be crafted in the dead of night and passed.

In the formula revealed in March, there’s something called “equity adjustments,” which is a “tiered system of bonuses to account for the number of students institutions serve from racial minority, low-income backgrounds.”

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