Leaving students behind: School funding formula widens gap between rich and poor schools in Illinois

Rev. Jesse Jackson, Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis and Congressman Bobby Rush (D-Chicago) lead a protest the closing of nearly 50 CPS schools in 2013. Many CPS schools are under resourced, especially in comparison to wealthier suburban districts. (Charles Rex Arbogast | AP)
Rev. Jesse Jackson, Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis and Congressman Bobby Rush (D-Chicago) lead a protest the closing of nearly 50 CPS schools in 2013. Many CPS schools are under resourced, especially in comparison to wealthier suburban districts. (Charles Rex Arbogast | AP)

Twenty-five thousand dollars could buy a sailboat, a new Toyota Prius, 25 flights round-trip from Chicago to Tokyo or a night in a Grand Deluxe room at the Trump International Tower, for a month.

Yet $25,000 is also the difference in local tax revenue that one student in the Rondout School District in Lake County receives compared to one student in the Hardin School District downstate.

That’s just one comparison that illustrated the concern that many have over Illinois’ confusing and unequal school funding formula, which relies heavily on revenue from local property taxes, thus allowing affluent districts to receive tens of thousands of dollars more per student.

While the state addresses the funding gap through subsidies to some degree, it is not enough to offset the difference. Illinois districts on average only receive 26 percent of their funding from the state. Nationally, school districts receive closer to 53 percent from their states.

As a result, Illinois is labeled by some education interest groups as the second-most regressively funded state education system in the United States.

Such inequality is a concern with the Chicago Public Schools, where 85 percent of the student body comes from low-income families who could benefit most from a revised and more equitable funding structure.

The funding challenges that exist within Illinois’ public education system were a central topic among state politicians campaigning in the 2014 midterm elections. Many have called for a formula reform to balance school district funding.

The School Funding Reform Act of 2014 passed the state senate and is awaiting approval in the house. State Sen. Andy Manar introduced the bill. His plans would simplify how state dollars are distributed by using one weighted formula to prioritize resources in districts that need the most.

“Illinois cannot have an island of schools that are well funded and a sea of others that are not,” Manar said when introducing the bill in April. “That is not acceptable to me as a legislator, and should be unacceptable to every member of the legislature.”

Despite the push by Manar, however, the reform bill did not received positive feedback from Gov. Pat Quinn or his successor, governor-elect Bruce Rauner.

During the gubernatorial campaign, Rauner outlined his own school funding formula reform with the objectives of “an increase in overall state resources to reduce the impact on districts that receive less funding under a new formula” and “streamlined and consolidated funding streams.” However, he did not identify any specifics in his plan.

On Nov. 4, Chicago citizens voted in support of a non-binding ballot measure to consider the population of at-risk students when calculating funding to create a more equitable distribution of funding dollars. The measure was supported by 414,333 votes (74.2 percent) and opposed by 143,717 (25.8 percent) with 2,046 of 2,069 precincts counted.

Screen shot 2014-11-09 at 6.29.49 PMIllinois currently uses a formula in which the state determines a minimum amount of funding each student needs to receive for an adequate education. However, this calculation is based off of the state’s general revenue funds, rather than an estimation that incorporates factors such as the increased cost of at-risk and impoverished students. The remainder of school funding is allocated based on local property taxes, which favors more affluent communities.

In 2002, the Illinois Education Funding Advisory calculated a recommended per-pupil funding level that the General Assembly adopted. However, every year since its inception, the state funding level has failed to match that recommendation. The current state funding level at $6,119 per student has been the same since 2010 and is about $2,241 short of the recommendation for 2014.

To make the situation even more challenging, Illinois’ educational funding has been falling. In 2013, the state was

$518 million short for education, and districts received only 89 percent of the amount owed to them.

Ben Hiromura, a 21-year-old student teacher at Newberry Math and Science Academy on Chicago’s North Side, said this funding difference prohibited some school districts from adequately educating students.

“The inequity does not stem from the idea that money equals good education, because that assumption is not a correct one,” Hiromura said. “The unfairness comes from the overall ability of the district to not only function but to excel in reaching all of their students.”

“School districts that have more capital allow for individual schools to meet the needs of their individual students … (while) children in low-socioeconomic neighborhoods are given insufficient resources,” he said.

When districts that rely heavily on state funding lose that aid, schools resort to cuts in advanced programs, teacher salaries and operational tasks such as building maintenance. Steeper cuts include eliminating teaching jobs or closing buildings.

Dan Gold, a teacher at Urban Prep Charter Academy Englewood, a CPS charter school, said he wanted to teach in Chicago to help combat educational inequality and learn about the problems facing students with special needs in low-income communities.

Gold went to Deerfield High School, part of an affluent school district in Lake County, and he made note of the differences between the two schools.

“The physical buildings are so different, so we can just start there,” Gold said. “In addition to that, Englewood barely has one computer lab, whereas I know all students at Deerfield carry personal Chromebooks.”

This lack of funding for an adequate education for Chicago school district students has forced the school district to cut spending altogether on fire prevention and safety, municipal retirement and social security, transportation, operations and maintenance.

Gold said one of the biggest obstacles his students face is just getting to school.

“Chicago Public Schools do not provide funding to pay for buses, or even CTA cards for those students who do not have special needs that impair their abilities to travel to and from school,” Gold said. “Many of my students struggle just to find a way to school in the morning.”

Chicago also has shortened elementary school days and discontinued 42 percent of elementary schools’ art and music classes to account for funding deficits, despite research that showed that longer school days and art and music education provided a beneficial boost in learning for at-risk children.

“Clearly, something needs to be done to fix educational funding in Illinois,” Gold said.