Two weeks ago, the Illinois Senate passed a long overdue bill to provide equitable funding to all Illinois public schools. Senate Bill 1 would vastly improve upon the current funding formula which has created the largest gap in our nation in school spending between school districts that serve the wealthy and districts that serve the poor.
In response to the bill, Beth Purvis, Governor Rauner’s Secretary of Education, stated that Rauner would veto the bill if the formula benefitted the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) at the expense of other districts. This is an ironic statement considering the current legislation on school funding, one that Rauner’s administration has the power to change, greatly benefits wealthy districts at the expense of impoverished districts all across our state.
Originally from a middle-class suburb of Chicago, I attended well-funded public schools from kindergarten through high school. My classmates and I were never in need of new textbooks or technology, and we didn’t sit in overcrowded classrooms in need of attention. We weren’t stressed out by aspects of poverty, and our teachers weren’t paying hundreds of dollars for supplies or to make copies each year. And this is what I believed every Illinois student and every American student was experiencing when they attended a public school.
Flash forward to my first experience with teaching in CPS during college, and the contrasts couldn’t have been more striking. Forty students sat huddled in a classroom with tattered textbooks they pulled out from under their chairs—they couldn’t take them home to read from as there weren’t enough for all of the students. The teacher I observed only made class sets of copies for students as she paid for them herself, so students couldn’t write on the worksheets in order to preserve clean copies for the next class. Most students in the class hailed from violent neighborhoods and dealt with the effects of poverty on a daily basis, yet they did not have access to a school social worker or school psychologist. This was a Chicago classroom close to fifteen years ago.
Not much has changed for Chicago students since then, but a lot is changing for districts across our state now dealing with more and more students in poverty. According to the Illinois State Report Card, 49% of students who attend Illinois public schools are low-income. Other large school districts in Illinois like Aurora, Rockford, Joliet, and even Springfield have a majority of their students receiving free-and-reduced lunch (all four are around 60%). All four also have much lower per-pupil spending rates than wealthy districts. A review of smaller districts also reveals the disparity. Rural, downstate Taylorville where 54% of the population is low-income, has an operating expense per pupil of $7,474. Yet, because Illinois factors property taxes into its school funding formula, the wealthiest districts in Illinois spend nearly $20,000 per student.
Calling an equitable funding bill “a CPS bailout,” which has been done multiple times in the past by the Rauner administration to thwart previous attempts at fixing the formula, is misleading to the public and damaging to our most vulnerable students all across the state. The new funding formula stands to target the districts most in need, funnel new money to them while not taking current funding away from other districts.
Illinois students all over the state, including those from Chicago, will benefit from this funding formula. Educators, leaders, and families from Waukegan to Carbondale need to band together and make our support for this bill loud and clear. Otherwise, we will continue to do a disservice to Illinois students and families by upholding the status quo.
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