When Education Is Unequal

Published on
by
the Chicago Tribune

When Education Is Unequal

by
Cheryle R. Jackson

This week, in a lawsuit brought against the State of Illinois and the State Board of Education, the Chicago Urban League and Quad County Urban League called on the courts to end the discriminatory and unconstitutional way public school education is funded in Illinois. This is not just an educational issue, but a civil rights issue, too, for thousands of African-American and Latino students whose social and economic future is being shortchanged by a flawed state policy.

After more than a decade of legislative gridlock on education funding reform, set against a bleak backdrop of crumbling schoolhouses, moldy books and shamefully low graduation rates -- the time has come to dismantle the current property-based system of school financing.

That system is discriminatory in its impact, sustaining huge funding gaps between black and white schools.

It makes quality education nearly impossible for thousands of students of color. It confounds the best efforts of well-meaning parents, teachers and administrators. And it puts children on a pathway to lifelong poverty and social pathologies that squander their potential and exact enormous social costs.

This system must go.

According to the education reform advocacy group A+ Illinois, Illinois ranks 49th of 50 states in the nation in the state-contributed funding of its schools. The low share of funding leaves a big hole to fill: 62 percent of the average school district's income must come from local sources. The national average for state education spending is 50 percent. Of course, affluent communities can fill the gap much easier than poor ones. That gap creates very real educational impacts-in the quality of teachers, the number of computers available to students, even whether books get replaced regularly. While some affluent schools are able to spend as much as $23,000 per student each year, others can afford only about $6,000. Sadly, these differences correspond to race.

Quality education should be available to all regardless of income. There are many compelling reasons for equity in our educational system. Educational quality affects families and neighborhoods. Currently, African-American and Latino male freshmen have only about a 3 percent chance of obtaining a bachelor's degree by the time they're 25. Eliminating the property-tax based system and raising the poorest districts to higher funding levels will not only boost educational levels but will also improve the numbers of students making it through college. And that will strengthen our neighborhoods, our cities and our state.

It is a sad commentary on the state of public education in Illinois and in America that we have come to this crossroads. How did we get here? Many of us believed these battles had already been fought and won.

Five decades ago in the South, African-American children under National Guard protection walked through a mob of racists to integrate schools. Why? They just wanted an equal education.

In the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered an end to segregated public schooling. But after three decades, federal desegregation efforts began to stall. More recently they have been thrown into reverse. Conservative courts, white flight, and disinvestment in public education have left us once again a nation separate, a nation unequal.

Just look at the schools in our own region. In the 2005 study "Still Separate, Unequal" the Chicago Urban League revealed how deep that segregation has become. Here in Chicago, the study found, the average black child attended a school that is 86 percent black. Half of the city's elementary and high schools were 90 percent or more black; a third were nearly 100 percent black.

It's time to overturn Illinois' property-tax funded system in favor of a more equitable solution. Clearly, improving the education received by low-income students is more complex than simply throwing money at a few districts. To those who argue that achievement gaps exist even in well-funded schools, we say this: Critical reforms are needed throughout the system. Increased parental engagement is vital. But improving the resources at the disposal of struggling teachers and administrators is precisely where any permanent reform surely must begin.

Cheryle R. Jackson is president and chief executive officer of the Chicago Urban League.

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