If Chicago’s schools close early, the blame lies 200 miles away

SHARE If Chicago’s schools close early, the blame lies 200 miles away

Chicago Public Schools CEO Forrest Claypool says he turned to consultants he’s worked with before because he needed help from “skilled experts.” | Santiago Covarrubias / Sun-Times files

Follow @csteditorialsNobody wants to see Chicago’s public schools close early this year for lack of money.

But it is the job of Gov. Bruce Rauner and the Illinois General Assembly, as made clear in the state Constitution, to find the necessary funds at this point. They should not be let off the hook.

Well-intended alternative solutions to the financial crisis facing the Chicago Public Schools, such as tapping local tax increment financing funds, would do nothing to end the fundamental unfairness of how schools are funded in Illinois. They would be thin patches on an old tire. They would only allow Springfield to duck its responsibilities again.

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We share the frustration of parents, teachers and all Chicagoans who find it ridiculous that the school year is drawing to a close yet nobody can say exactly when. The official last day is June 20, but CPS has threatened to shut down three weeks early if it cannot fill a $129 million budget gap.

We also share the frustration of skeptics who question whether the threat is real. Forrest Claypool, CEO of the public schools, may be overstating the dire consequences; and it’s hard to imagine Mayor Rahm Emanuel tolerating a reversal of one of his signature accomplishments, which was to extend the length of CPS’ school year.

But the central issue remains: Who will pick up the tab — now and in the years to come? Will the state finally shoulder its responsibilities? Or will school districts, such as CPS, that serve high concentrations of children who live in poverty continue to be short-changed compared with school districts that serve kids in wealthier communities?

The Illinois Constitution of 1970 leaves no doubt as to where that responsibility lies: “The state has the primary responsibility for financing the system of public educational institutions and services.” But never once since then has the state lived up to that commitment.

On the contrary, the bulk of funding for Illinois schools continues to come from local property taxes, meaning a child’s ZIP code is a child’s future. Kids in Lake Forest swim in Olympic-size pools while kids on Chicago’s West Side play dodgeball in asphalt parking lots. Some school districts in Illinois spend $6,000 per student, while other districts spend $30,000.

And we wonder why some kids go to Harvard while others go to prison.

What’s desperately needed is a new state formula for funding public education, sending more of the total state aid to poorer districts. We cannot take our eye off that prize. State Sen. Andy Manar, a Democrat from Bunker Hill, has been proposing sound new formulas for years; he just can’t get the votes.

Equally needed is more state funding for schools overall. Or, even with a new funding formula, Illinois will remain among the worst states in the nation in its over-reliance on property taxes to pay for public education.

If the issue were only that CPS needs an extra $129 million to keep its doors open until June 20, we might join the call to use those TIF funds. But the school funding problem in Illinois — in Chicago and across the state — is so much greater than that. It is scandalous.

And the long-term solution is to be found not in Chicago but 200 miles down I-55.

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