Funding reform is next battle for equity

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Veronica Anderson, editor

Veronica Anderson, editor

In early January, a federal judge declared that the desegregation consent decree signed by the Board of Education and the U.S. Department of Justice more than 20 years ago was “passé.”

“The whole complexion of the city has changed,” said U.S. District Court Judge Charles P. Korcoras, contrasting the current demographics to those of the 1970s, which formed the basis for the 1980 agreement. “The school system has changed dramatically. Somebody tell me why this case should stay alive?”

Neither the School Board nor Justice officials had a ready answer. Nor do we. Between 1980 and today, the percentage of white students enrolled in the Chicago Public Schools has dropped from 20 percent to less than 10, and they’re not sprinkled evenly throughout this far-flung district, making racial integration a pipe dream. And no one—Latino, African American or white—wants forced busing.

The consent decree required the School Board to integrate school faculties within certain percentage points, to maintain a federally-prescribed racial mix among students at magnet schools and to keep all schools under 65 percent white. But the district was never able to live up to those goals. Many magnet schools are out of compliance. The number of schools with majority white enrollment increased in the late 1990s, and a year ago, the district reported that more than half of its 600 schools were failing to meet faculty integration targets.

While we believe in integration, we believe even more in equal educational opportunity. And that means sufficient money for schools in black and brown communities to offer the services and provide the quality that will level the educational playing field for their children. Under the current demographics, that moves this civil rights battle to Springfield, where a growing number of organizations are pushing school finance reform.

Two groups—a coalition of business, union and civic groups called Network 21 and the state’s Education Funding Advisory Board—have endorsed plans that would shift the burden of education funding away from property tax to income tax, and would raise base level of school funding from $4,500 per student to more than $5,600. The latter would cost $1.8 billion, equivalent to an increase in the state income tax from the current 3 percent to 3.67 percent. Such an increase could mean hundreds of millions in additional state funding for CPS.

It’s old news that school spending in Illinois varies widely from district to district. Spending per pupil ranges from the base all the way up to more than $15,000, typically in districts where family wealth already gives children a head start. It’s also widely known that in Illinois, the state’s contribution to public school revenues—37 percent—is among the lowest in the country. On average, states pick up just over half of the tab for public education.

The state of the economy and of the state’s budget has made the tough sell of school finance reform even tougher. However, the educational climate has grown more hospitable since the last big push, in the early 1990s. Under the evolution of school reform in Chicago, taxpayers can have more faith that their money will be used wisely. The accountability measures of the federal No Child Left Behind Act give an added boost.

The major missing piece is the money to maintain the momentum. It’s time for politicians who claim education as a top priority to put their money where their mouth is. House Speaker Mike Madigan? Gov. Rod Blagojevich? What say you?

ABOUT US Web site editor Dan Weissmann, who has worked in various capacities at Catalyst since 1991, is leaving to pursue new opportunities. Speaking for myself and the rest of the staff, we will miss Dan’s presence and good work, but we share his excitement about moving on and wish him well in future endeavors.