It's no coincidence that some of Illinois' most vibrant communities also are home to some of its best public schools. We live in a vast state where public education is deeply reliant on a thriving local economy and robust property tax base.
As a result, students face a real disadvantage in communities where the economy isn't faring as well. After nearly two decades, it's time for state leaders to fix this glaring disparity.
Illinois is primed for an overhaul of its school-funding formula, one that treats Chicago Public Schools the same as school districts in central Illinois farm country; one that demands the same level of resources and results for students in the wealthy northern suburbs as it does for students in poverty-stricken Cairo at the southern tip of the state.
Without question, this is a tough and gut-wrenching calculus that pits regional interests against what is best for the state. But for too long, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have ignored the plight of struggling school districts. As the years go by, the inequity gap in Illinois gets wider.
We no longer can accept that Illinois has stacked the deck against an overwhelming number of its schools, particularly those with higher levels of poverty and more students of color. By tying school funding to local wealth and economic success, Illinois perpetuates a race to the bottom. Here's how.
As companies flock to such wealthy communities as Naperville, Northfield, Park Ridge, Northbrook and Wilmette, families follow the jobs, put down roots and send their children to the great public schools that helped attract the companies there in the first place.
The schools benefit from the influx of property tax support and population, enabling them to offer better programs and services. That investment begets greater educational success, smaller achievement gaps and accolades from near and far.
The result: more companies and more families want to be there because of the excellent schools, causing an even greater influx of property tax dollars for education and even greater disparity among school districts.
Contrast that with what happens in cities with serious economic challenges: Decatur, Cairo, Kankakee and Danville, for example, plus many of the communities south of Interstate 70 that for decades depended on blue-collar industries like mining and manufacturing as their economic bases.
When longtime major employers close their doors, families put their homes on the market and move away. The seeds of poverty and crime are sewn. Once-thriving Main Street businesses shutter. Property tax collections decrease, meaning less money for local schools. More families move away, and businesses find less incentive to move in. The cycle of decline continues.
It's an unjust system that shortchanges students in communities where coal mines closed or factories shut down. Meanwhile, that same unjust system drives double or triple the amount of money to students in thriving, prosperous communities.
What we are left with are schools that succeed for a few, but don't succeed for all.
It's time to hit the reset button and craft a new school-funding formula. Together we own the worst system in America, and we need a truly statewide solution that treats all schools equally. Today's system is a web of complicated formulas that result in less than half of all state education dollars going to schools based on need—which shortchanges the neediest schools in the state.
Reform efforts should be focused on one statewide formula that accounts for each school district's individual needs and sets up one set of rules for all schools to drive better results. We should prioritize limited state resources to bridge the gaps. No more inequity, no more special deals.
That includes ending Chicago block grants while alleviating financial pressure on CPS and the hundreds of other districts across Illinois in the same predicament. Pension fairness should be part of the equation, too.
In the coming weeks, legislation will be introduced to change Illinois education funding once and for all. If we are going to compete with the world—and get the results Illinois taxpayers rightly demand for their investment—our system has to change.
If state lawmakers and other elected leaders, including Gov. Bruce Rauner, are looking for a structural reform to get behind this year, this is it.
Illinois State Senator Andy Manar is a Democrat from Bunker Hill. This column originally appeared in Crain’s Chicago Business.