OPINION: Close huge school funding gap that holds back poor kids
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After two years of political gridlock, Illinois has finally passed a budget. I am grateful to all the legislators who came together to make this happen. And yet, the work is not over. It can’t and won’t be until legislation is passed to equitably fund our schools.
I’ve been teaching for eight years in low-income schools in and around Chicago. I’m also a parent of four children who attended public school in Evanston, where we have a well-funded district. I have seen firsthand the disparities that exist between the schools my children attend and the low-income schools in which I work.
Our current funding formula relies on property taxes, making it easier for wealthier communities to put more towards their local schools. Additionally, the formula underestimates student need, not sufficiently allocating the funds necessary to educate students from low-income backgrounds, with special needs, or learning English. In the end, districts and students who need more support actually end up with less.
In Evanston, every elementary school has at least one playground — most have two. Every school has a library with a librarian, a full-time nurse, reading specialist and at least one social worker. The average class has 20 students.
There, not only do children receive P.E., library, art, music, drama, and optional band instruction as part of the regular school day, they also have access to a diverse range of free or nearly free before- and after-school activities.
As my children enter high school, they can expect a plethora of course offerings and even more extracurricular opportunities. They will receive a robust, high-quality education that will prepare them for success in college and beyond.
In Chicago, it’s not uncommon to see class sizes well above 30. Some high schools offer students only the bare minimum coursework to graduate. Too many schools have lost their libraries, art, music, and drama classes. In too many schools, multiple campuses share counseling, social work, and nursing staff. Too many schools lack technology, athletic facilities, and basics like air conditioning and desks for all students.
As an elementary teacher, I’ve watched students push around crumbled concrete with bits of plastic trash in the parking lot during recess, because our school had no playground. As a high school teacher, I see students slipping through the cracks because there simply are not enough resources to meet their needs.
In communities like North Lawndale, where students suffer the effects of violence, poverty, and homelessness, inadequate counseling resources leave our young people struggling to navigate life-or-death situations virtually alone. For some students, trauma manifests itself through challenging behavior in the classroom. Others disengage. Some stop coming to school or become involved in street life. These students need our strong support — they need adults to help them work through pain, problem-solve, hold them accountable, and resolve conflicts — not to mention tackle academics that will prepare them for college.
Our public schools in every community are full of young people with great intelligence, compassion, humor, grace — young people who have the potential to be society’s future doctors, lawyers, teachers, engineers and computer scientists. When we don’t meet their needs, we lose that potential. And, we pay a high price — by way of violence, incarceration, and continued cycles of poverty.
In the city of Chicago, where state funding accounts for a third of revenue, per pupil spending is about $15,000. In Evanston, where state money accounts for less than 6 percent of revenue, per pupil spending is almost $22,000. Why do we as a society spend close to $7,000 more to educate a child in Evanston than we do to educate a child in North Lawndale?
With our current funding formula, we, the people of Illinois, are essentially professing that some young people, by virtue of their zip code, are more worthy of public investment than others.
This funding formula must change. I am grateful that my own children attend excellent schools in Evanston. But I also know my children are no more valuable and no more deserving of public investment than other children in Illinois. And my years as a teacher have taught me that young people in communities with high poverty need more support from school, not less.
Although they passed a long-awaited budget, our representatives remain in Springfield to decide how to fund our schools. Senate Bill 1, which could be sent to the governor’s desk any day now, calls for a sustainable and equitable school funding formula so that all children across our state can have access to a quality education. Gov. Rauner has promised a veto. Call his office and change his mind.
Winnie Stevenson is a teacher at North Lawndale College Prep in Chicago and a member of Educators for Excellence-Chicago, a teacher-led education policy organization. She has four children that have attended District 65 schools.
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