A guest column on Illinois' inequitable school funding system from State Rep. Will Burns (D-Chicago).
Yesterday, I joined members of the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus in a press conference on school funding reform. Recent calls for a boycott of the Chicago Public Schools have, predictably, focused new attention on an old problem: Illinois’ overreliance on local property taxes to fund public schools.
This is not a new issue for me.
In 1998, I was the staff analyst for the Senate Education and Appropriations Committee.
Two years later, I organized a statewide coalition on school funding reform that included unions, businesses, civil rights groups, and civic organizations. We brought in outside experts to demonstrate the state's failure to devote adequate resources to high quality education for our children. We showed how the lack of state support for public schools increased district's reliance on local property taxes, and how the need for property tax reform skewed economic development decisions and created perverse incentives for urban sprawl. All to no avail.
The guaranteed minimum of per-child education spending in the state is still significantly lower than what is needed to adequately serve our children. On the national level, Illinois ranks 49th in state support for public education.
As I learned on the campaign trail this past fall and winter, the consequences are pernicious. Renters struggle to pay rising rents fueled by gentrification and escalating property values. Homeowners are palpably angry about high property tax bills and underperforming schools.
Parents know that their children -- through no fault of their own -- will not reach their full academic potential, because their schools are horribly underfunded. The effects last a lifetime in the form of underemployment, unemployment, and lost wages.
The ramifications are equally bad for the state. Our failure to substantially invest in public education imperils the quality of Illinois' future workforce and its economic competitiveness.
There is an education funding crisis in this state, but it is not readily visible and it lacks the urgency of last year’s transit meltdown.
Districts won’t close their doors anytime soon.
Classrooms are overcrowded, but teachers are still teaching.
No district faces a serious threat of a state takeover.
The key to education funding reform is to make the school funding crisis urgent.
That’s why I support legislation to prohibit the collection of local property taxes for education expenditures and to repeal the school aid formula by 2010. The system is broken and it must be fixed. We should therefore abolish it, by a date certain, so that the General Assembly and governor will be forced to develop an alternative, equitable, and just school funding system.
Some will call this proposal radical. But it is an approach that has worked. In 1993, the Michigan legislature and governor took this unprecedented step and a year later emerged with a new school funding system that boosted state resources for poor school districts and dramatically reduced inequalities between the wealthy and the poor.
Maybe, just maybe, this approach will get us closer to high quality schools for all Illinois children.
Will Burns is the Democratic nominee for state representative in Illinois' 26th District.