Tuesday, April 26, 2011

It's not just unfair, it's unconstitutional.

School Funding in Illinois is Unfair and Unconstitutional
Is our state education funding system set up to keep the rich rich and the poor poor? Why are some Illinois schools excellent and some failing in so many ways? While there are numerous variables that affect school quality, one critical issue in Illinois is fair funding of schools. Schools in wealthy areas spend much more per student than schools in lower income areas. According to the Illinois Comptroller’s office, “…expenditures per pupil ranged from a low of $4,281 to a high of $28,285...” This disparity is obscene.
Not only is it unfair, it is also unconstitutional.
Article X, Section 1 of the Illinois Constitution states:

A fundamental goal of the People of the State is the educational development of all persons to the limits of their capacities. The State shall provide for an efficient system of high quality public educational institutions and services. Education in public schools through the secondary level shall be free. There may be such other free education as the General Assembly provides by law. The State has the primary responsibility for financing the system of public education.

Illinois is not living up to this admirable constitutional declaration. The last provision, that the state of Illinois has the “primary responsibility” for financing free, efficient and high quality educational institutions and services, is clearly not being enforced. In fact, during the 2007-2008 school year the state of Illinois contributed a smaller percentage to k-12 public schools than all other states. Illinois only contributes 26.7% of total school funding, placing Illinois dead last in the United States; 50 out of 50. Instead, the responsibility for funding public schools in Illinois has fallen on local governments, which cover 65% of the cost of k-12 education, the highest percentage of any state.

Why does it matter if the state of Illinois funds a smaller percentage of education, leaving local governments to pay a larger percentage? In small affluent suburbs it doesn’t cause much of a problem at all. With large property tax revenues, relatively small school-age populations, and shared interest in excellent schools these suburbs more than make up for the state’s lack of funding. So, in Illinois, some schools receive less than half the state average of  $9,099 per student and some receive more than twice that average?

While some argue that money does not matter in education, it is hard to believe that a district which spends $4,281 per student is providing the same, constitutionally mandated, high quality education provided by a district which spends $28,285. Apparently, children in rural and urban low-income communities just don’t deserve the same “high quality education” as children in upper income suburbs.

In 1987 Education Secretary William Bennett said, ''I'm not sure there's a system as bad as the Chicago system'' and extreme actions such as mayoral control and expanding charter schools have been taken to try to remedy the situation but by most measures public schools in Chicago haven’t improved much. The real problem begins in our funding formula. Nobody is complaining about failing schools in Winnetka, Highland Park and Oak Park which benefit from high funding rates stemming from local wealth.

Mayoral control, Renaissance 2010 school closings and the move to charter and contract schools haven’t improved schools in Chicago much. A recent national study showed that only about 15% of charter schools perform better than comparable neighborhood schools which means that 85% perform as well or worse. Charters alone are clearly not the answer. Why are we putting our eggs in this charter basket, when a more fundamental issue is likely to blame for our chronically underperforming urban and rural schools.

The constitutional goal is a fair one, promising “efficient,” “free,” and “high quality” education in the state. I propose that policy be enacted to guarantee that Illinois funds the actual cost of providing this high quality education to all students in the state. At a minimum, the state should be required to follow the guidelines set by the non-partisan Education Funding Advisory Board (EFAB) with additional funding to be provided based on students with special needs since the EFAB specifically does not include those students in its estimates. Currently the state is not required to meet EFAB guidelines and never has since they were first enacted in 2003.

I suggest that state legislators and Governor Quinn walk through some of our Illinois schools that get by on less than $5,000 per student and then take a drive to a few of the schools which spend over $15,000 per student.  Maybe then they will commit to scrapping our unfair, inequitable education funding system in Illinois and live up to the constitutional commitment that our state will be the primary source of funding for the “educational development of all persons to the limits of their capacities.”

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