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Education leaders seek added state funding to help districts accommodate influx of migrants

Three people sitting in a row at an Illinois State Board of Education meeting. The man with white hair and a blue suit is speaking into a microphone while a younger woman and another older woman listen attentively.
Peter Hancock
Capitol News Illinois
State Rep. Fred Crespo, right, and Bridget Peach, executive director of the advocacy group ED-RED, testify in favor of special funding for the education of migrant students during a House committee hearing Tuesday, April 16, 2024.

The recent surge of international migrants arriving in Illinois has brought with it a host of new challenges for state and local officials. Those range from filling their most basic needs like emergency food, clothing and shelter, to more complex issues like lining them up with basic health care, financial assistance and other social services.

But there is another challenge stemming from the influx of migrants that some advocates say the state has not done enough to address – educating the children of those coming across the border.

Jeannie Stachowiak, superintendent of North Palos School District 117, a district of about 3,500 students in Chicago’s southwest suburbs, told a legislative committee this week how the crisis has affected her schools.

“Over 40 percent of our students qualify for English learner services, and the numbers are continuing to grow,” she said. “Just this year, we have enrolled 83 newcomer students who come from 16 different countries, from the Middle East, Eastern Europe, South America, and Mexico. Many of these students have suffered trauma in their countries of origin and have experienced interrupted schooling. Several who are enrolled also need additional services beyond that of (English learner), which may include special education as they were not properly identified and supported before they came to the United States.”

Kimako Patterson, chief of staff at the Illinois State Board of Education, said that in the last two years, a total of 62,644 “newcomers” have arrived in the state’s schools. Those are people age 3 to 21 who were born outside of the 50 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico and have been attending school in the U.S. for less than three years.

Most of those students are enrolled in Chicago Public Schools, she said, but an estimated 12,771 are enrolled in other districts. She said those students come from 147 different countries, led by Mexico, Colombia, Ukraine, India and Venezuela.

In January, ISBE submitted a funding request for the upcoming fiscal year totaling just over $11 billion, or roughly one-fifth of the state’s entire General Revenue Fund budget. That included $35 million in new funding to support migrant students.

Although Gov. JB Pritzker did not include that money in the budget proposal he sent to the General Assembly, ISBE still hopes to have it included in the final budget that lawmakers pass this session.

State Rep. Fred Crespo, a Democrat from the Cook County village of Hoffman Estates, is the lead sponsor of two bills – House Bills 2822 and 3991 – that would authorize ISBE to distribute $35 million in New Arrival Student Grants to local districts that apply for a share of the funding.

But some advocates now say the $35 million that was included in ISBE’s budget request was based on old information, and they now estimate a much higher cost of $188 million, just for districts in the Chicago metropolitan area.

“Yes, $188 million to fund the Supporting Newcomer Students program,” Bridget Peach, executive director of the advocacy group ED-RED, told the House K-12 education budget committee Tuesday. “This amount represents the needs of (Chicago Public Schools), Cook County, Lake County, and DuPage County school districts.”

That figure came as a shock to some committee members, particularly Republicans who view the influx of migrants as a direct consequence of state and local policies that welcome immigrants, regardless of their legal status.

“Do we think that it's a good idea to stop, or at least put a moratorium, on the sanctuary state policy until we could get to a level where we could actually afford this,” asked Rep. Blaine Wilhour, R-Beecher City. “I mean, we have every district in the state coming in here saying that we can't adequately fund education as it is. And then we've got a policy that we're inviting the folks here, most of them illegally, and we simply can't afford it.”

“It's a legitimate question,” Crespo replied. “I think when we adopted the sanctuary city (policy), we (did so with) good intentions. That's who we are, especially for a state that's pretty much controlled by Democrats. And I firmly believe in that.”

Later, when Rep. Brad Halbrook, R-Shelbyville, asked when, if ever, the influx of new migrants into Illinois will subside, Crespo responded jokingly that it was a question better directed to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott. The Republican governor has organized the shipment of migrants crossing the southern U.S.-Mexico border to Chicago and other Democratically controlled cities.

As of April 16, the city of Chicago reported it had welcomed more than 39,000 individuals that had been bused or flown from Texas. Of those, more than 16,000 had been resettled, according to the city.

“I was hoping we didn't have to start talking about Texas,” said committee Chair Will Davis, D-Homewood. “So I think we acknowledge the role that Texas is playing. And we'll just move on from there.”

In a separate interview, Crespo said he does not actually expect his colleagues to approve $188 million for migrant education. But he said he felt it was important for lawmakers to start talking about the actual cost of educating the migrant population.

“My main goal was to create awareness that when we talk about the newcomers, we talk about housing, we talk about health care, feeding these people, but we never really talk about education,” he said. “Some school districts have seen their population go up by 10 percent. And that's a lot for one year to the next.”

Pritzker did propose a $450 million increase in overall funding for PreK-12 education next year, including a $350 million increase in the Evidence-Based Funding formula, the primary formula used for allocating state money to local school districts.

But Peach said funding for the migrant population should be treated differently because that formula does not take into account the special circumstances surrounding the migrant population.

“The calculation of each school district's enrollment for EBF is taken at the beginning of the school year on one day,” she said. “So that snapshot fails to adequately capture the number of enrolled newcomer students based on the high mobility of the population we're serving. And that's really creating a funding gap for individual districts to address.”

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government. It is distributed to hundreds of newspapers, radio and TV stations statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, along with major contributions from the Illinois Broadcasters Foundation and Southern Illinois Editorial Association.

Peter Hancock joined the Capitol News Illinois team as a reporter in January 2019.