PI Original Angela Caputo Friday February 6th, 2009, 2:52pm

The Argument Strengthens For School Funding Reform

The Prairie State earned yet another dubious distinction this week: Illinois has the highest disparity in the Midwest in school spending between poor and wealthy districts. According to Voices for Illinois Children, which released its annual Kids Count report on the ...

The Prairie State earned yet another dubious distinction this week: Illinois has the highest disparity in the Midwest in school spending between poor and wealthy districts. According to Voices for Illinois Children, which released its annual Kids Count report on the state of Illinois’ children yesterday, the issue is about more than fairness. The broken funding structure, perpetuated by our recent political paralysis, “threatens the state’s economy, its future workforce and its ability to compete in a global marketplace.”

The data ought to send a wake up call to the General Assembly, which will soon have another chance to fix one of the state’s most pressing public policy issues thanks to pledges from Reps. Will Burns and David Miller to put school funding reform back on the table this session. From the latest round of sobering and dismal student achievement stats, Illinois has clearly reached the tipping point. Lawmakers and state execs can no longer sidestep the crisis. 

Some figures from the Kids Count study:

-Only one in five Illinois students is college ready based on the ACT.

-High school graduation rates are only about 75 percent among Blacks and Latinos vs. about 93 percent among Whites and Asians

-Less than half of all eighth graders were considered “proficient” in math, reading and writing, according to one national test (National Assessment of Educational Progress). Only single-digit rates were recorded under “advanced.”

Educators have long criticized Illinois’ school funding formula—which relies more heavily on property taxes than virtually any other state, to the benefit of wealthier districts—arguing that more money can attract highly-trained teachers and provide books, technology and other crucial resources. Unfortunately, state officials have compounded the problem by failing to ease the economic burden facing poor districts. Between 2002 and 2007, state spending on students has increased by a mere $312 more per child on average, according to the Kids Count report.

Here’s how the failure to raise the floor on state education spending is playing out in schools: East Aurora spent $8,985 per pupil last year (which is just below the state average) compared with $18,553 in Lisle. Anyone who tries to argue that that kind of spending gap doesn’t matter is kidding themselves, East Aurora District spokesman Clayton Muhammad tells the Beacon News:

“You can’t talk about the achievement gap without talking about the disparities,” Muhammad said. “This problem has now become a circle. Student growth and disparities in student funding and achievement feed off each other. If we can get a hold on one, we will see a positive result in the other pieces.”

It’s high time that lawmakers start reading report after report on the crisis and take immediate action. Otherwise, Illinois will pay for years to come.

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