Tuesday, August 12, 2008

School funding is whose problem?

The reason the General Assembly is going to convene today and Wednesday is to deal with problems of inequitable funding for public education.

Yet the big problem involved in dealing with this issue is that nobody can agree exactly what the problem is.

ACTUALLY, EVERYBODY HAS one point on which they do agree – the state does not provide enough money for “my” school district. The most wealthy and the most impoverished school districts, along with everybody in between, will argue that point.

But nobody can agree on why that is a problem.

The wealthiest of districts think they are entitled to have that financial advantage because of the economic boost they receive from local taxpayers. They will cite the fact that the percentage of their overall funding that comes from the state is significantly less than other school districts.

Meanwhile, the poorest of school districts in the most isolated parts of Southern Illinois cover communities that can never hope to match the kind of money that the wealthiest of North Shore suburban districts get from their local taxpayers. So they expect the state to give them more funds to help balance out the equation.

BUT IF THE state were to do so, those wealthiest of districts in the North Shore suburbs would see it as an attempt by the state to play favorites, while also taking what little state funding they receive to give to other school districts.

After all, the Illinois Constitution says state government has the, “primary responsibility for financing the system of public education.” Of course, no one has ever agreed on what “primary responsibility” means – the National Center for Education Statistics showed the average school district in Illinois received 29.6 percent of its funding from the state.

So technically, those wealthiest of districts that receive less than 29.6 percent and are paying the majority of their local school funding are correct when they say the state is not their “primary” funding source.

But the rest of Illinois looks to those wealthiest of districts as being absurd when they claim the state should give them more money.

THEN, THERE IS the case of Chicago, where technically, the state’s share of money to the Chicago Public Schools theoretically is respectable.

But the large number of students in the district compared to any other, combined with the aging facilities used by many inner-city schools, creates the problems that result in many public school students receiving fewer individual opportunities for academic achievement than public school students in suburban school districts.

Urban officials aren’t interested in hearing rhetoric about how their district is too big to be manageable. They want action taken.

And that, ultimately, is what this week’s special session of the General Assembly is about. Gov. Rod Blagojevich wants the illusion that he is trying to take action to help those districts.

WHEN NOTHING HAPPENS this week, he will have an action (a lack of action, in reality) that can be used to blame Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, and his legislative opponents for yet another wrongdoing in state government.

That lack of action is what is behind the protests being promised by state Sen. (and Rev.) James Meeks, D-Chicago, the politico who says he wants Chicago Public Schools students to skip the first day of school and make a token attempt at registering at a North Shore suburban school district.

Now some people want to denounce Meeks for proposing the notion that students should ever skip school.

Others see no point to having Chicago residents try to register at schools that are meant for residents of the suburban towns in which they exist. For some people, the idea of school sovereignity is so pre-eminent that they do not see the need for districts to act together.

THEY WOULD ARGUE that Chicago officials should focus attention on improving their own schools, and not expect other communities to come in and try to bail them out.

But such a small-minded viewpoint of the world of public education has long-range negative effects. In many ways, Illinois is only as sound as Chicago – economically, socially and in all other ways.

A weak Chicago schools system will drag down the city in future years, which will harm Illinois in so many ways. People like Meeks are correct when they say some drastic measure is necessary to shake up the situation, and the desire for drastic action is what is motivating many black preachers across Chicago and the nation (including Rev. Al Sharpton of New York) to support Meeks’ political talk.

But my thoughts go to, “What happens after… ?”

THAT QUESTION IS as in, “What happens after this week passes without any action being taken by the General Assembly to provide more funding for public school districts across the state?”

I’m sure nothing will happen because there have been no negotiations by Blagojevich and the Legislature’s leaders to craft a compromise bill that can be voted on in special session.

Literally, the General Assembly will convene at 3 p.m. Tuesday and 5 p.m. Wednesday, then sit there for a short time before deciding that there is no more point to sticking around the Capitol. Then, they will go home.

For most of the members of the General Assembly, this week in Springfield will be notable because of their participation in political rallies at the Illinois State Fair (Democrats and Wednesday and Republicans on Thursday). The fact that they will be eligible to receive the stipend covering their living costs for two days in Springfield is just an added bonus.

EDUCATION FUNDING WILL amount to nothing more than a few seconds of rhetoric in between the pleas to “back Barack” or to support the “McCain campaign.”

The other big question is, “What happens after suburban school districts refuse to support the students who follow the pleas of Rev. Meeks to make a protest attempt to enroll in a rich school district?”

Meeks may be well intentioned, but his actions threaten to turn students in financially impoverished school districts into the equivalent of those activist gay couples who periodically show up at the county clerk’s office to try (unsuccessfully) to get a marriage license.

They get a few seconds of attention for their cause (gays can’t marry, inner-city schools stink), then the general public’s attention span moves on to something else. That is what really stinks, because the problems of public education deserve more serious attention than a few seconds of protest.


EDITOR’S NOTES: In yet another sign that the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s influence over Chicago issues (http://abclocal.go.com/wls/story?section=news/local&id=6318221) is passé, it is the Rev. Al Sharpton who is trying to pressure local political people to act on inadequate funding for Chicago Public Schools students.

Nobody knows what, if anything, the General Assembly will actually do when they convene for two days (http://www.pjstar.com/news_state/x1507909642/Little-hope-going-into-special-session) this week in special session. That probably means the only thing that will happen is payment of just over $22,800 per day in living expenses for legislators to do nothing at the Statehouse.

The level of funding that public school districts receive from state government is at a 30-year (http://www.southtownstar.com/news/kadner/1093154,080608Kadner.article) low.

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