Only 3 percent of students in the west suburban Central Stickney School District qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Yet the district, which has one of the richest property tax bases in the state, gets $1,200 for each of its 11 low-income students.
Similarly, only 7 percent of the students in the Maercker School District in DuPage County qualify, yet the district also gets $1,200 in Title I funds for every low-income child.
In Chicago, 80 percent of the students are free-lunch eligible, yet the school district gets only $500 per low-income child.
And in south suburban Posen-Robbins, where 86 percent qualify, the per-pupil Title I allotment is just $390.
Such are the vagaries of a complex federal Title I formula that guarantees money for virtually every school district in the country, regardless of the wealth of its student body or the depth of its resources. The only districts that don’t get money are those that have fewer than 10 low-income children or whose enrollment is less than 2 percent low income.
“We ought to be helping those with greatest need the most, but you have [Congress] members who represent suburban districts who feel very strongly that they have to bring something home for their people,” says former Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.).
With appropriations of $8 billion, Title I is the federal government’s largest educational program.
Simon, who now heads the Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University, says he doesn’t oppose helping middle-income districts but that he draws the line at the likes of a New Trier on the North Shore, whose low-income level is only 1 percent.
New Trier had been receiving Title I until Simon and likeminded colleagues got Congress to impose the 2-percent cap two years ago. “New Trier doesn’t have those kinds of needs,” says Simon.