Equity in school funding is a central civil rights issue of our time

State Rep. Christian Mitchell (D-26)
State Rep. Christian Mitchell (D-26)

By STATE REP. CHRISTIAN MITCHELL (D-26)

A public school in the northwest suburbs touts amenities such as a state-of-the-art rock climbing wall, a photography lab, a TV studio and free Chromebooks for all incoming students.

Other districts have multiple Olympic-size swimming pools.

But in some schools in the 26th District, there are children using textbooks from the Clinton presidency that are battered, spineless and long outdated. There are schools in Cahokia and East St. Louis and poor downstate counties that are literally falling apart, where courageous teachers are fighting every day to educate children while buying their own school supplies.

Equality in education — specifically, in the kind of funding equity that results in equal opportunity — is no less than the civil rights issue of our time.

Students in Chicago Public Schools and other poor school districts across the state cannot be expected to compete with students from wealthy suburban districts under these conditions. Most importantly, in an era when students earn what they learn, and the jobs of the future — in health care, information technology and computer science, and new infrastructure — require a solid foundation, our children will be unable to compete for the brightest possible future.

I believe that the zip code in which you are born should determine only where you start, and never where you finish. That’s why Illinois needs to step up, and we have a chance to do exactly that.

Senate Bill 1, the successor to Senate Bill 16, which I wrote about previously, changes our broken education funding formula. It prioritizes our education dollars to focus first on the children who need it the most. And it does that by increasing the state’s investment in poorer school districts so that property tax wealth doesn’t determine the quality of a child’s education.

Under the current proposal, according to the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE), Chicago Public Schools would see an influx of $141 million in the next fiscal year. Most importantly, the factors that drive spending in our Chicago Public Schools system — like poverty, English language learners and special needs students — would see a boost in the formula, so that every new dollar put into our education system going forward will send more support to poor schools — including CPS.

This is important for two primary reasons. First, making the distribution formula more equitable also puts statewide school funding adequacy within reach. School funding equity alone isn’t the solution. We need adequate investment in our schools as well so that every child has access to a fully funded public school. But under our current distribution formula, we would need to double our investment in education in order to provide adequacy for every child. By better targeting our limited education funds to the neediest schools, we can reach adequacy for every school district sooner.

The second reason is that public policy, including the current funding formula, is how we got to this state of affairs in the first place — it was not accidental. Poverty, segregation and, perhaps most importantly, concentration of wealth at the top of the income ladder have led us to this point. This bears emphasis — while racial disparities remain a fixture of our city and our state, this is not just a Black-or-white issue. The coalition that descended upon Springfield earlier this year to lobby in support of this bill was not just inner-city African American and Hispanic kids – there were brothers and sisters, white and Black, from all around the state, from Chicago Public Schools and from Sandoval High School downstate. This is about haves and have-nots, and about rich and poor.

While there are some who have opposed and will continue to oppose this measure for political reasons, Senate Bill 1 is the first in a series of important steps necessary to begin to correct those structural, historical wrongs. We have more to do, to ensure that those two-thirds of corporations that pay no income taxes begin to do so, and that we correct a broken tax system that burdens a minimum wage worker with the same tax rate as a multi-millionaire. I’ll continue to lead on these issues. So let us work together, shoulder to shoulder, to place a mile marker on the road to justice by passing Senate Bill 1.