Students gather in the auditorium at south suburban Riverdale's General George S. Patton Elementary School to get "hyped" for upcoming standardized tests. At Patton, the needs are so great that students in some classes can't take textbooks home because there aren't enough for each student. (Photo by Beth Rooney)

This article is the second installment in a four-part series focusing on school funding.

“Chicago Matters” is an annual public information series initiated and funded by The Chicago Community Trust, with programming by WTTW, Channel 11, Chicago Public Radio, the Chicago Public Library and the Reporter.

One Friday morning in early March, the auditorium at General George S. Patton Elementary School in south suburban Riverdale was abuzz with excitement. A pep rally in anticipation of the following week’s high-stakes standardized tests featured a pair of rapping young boys, a group of cheering girls with blue pompons and a tall teacher with dreadlocks reading a children’s book about the importance of such exams. “The test. The test. The test,” he repeated, in a deep whispery voice.

Then, as the rally disbanded, an impromptu tumbling show took place with four boys flipping their lanky bodies several times in the air. Others cheered as they lined up to go back to their classrooms. “We just want to get our kids hyped,” said Kathy Colbert, the school’s assistant principal, who reminded the children to be ready for the exams by getting a good night’s sleep, eating breakfast and arriving to school on time.

There’s more than enough enthusiasm about learning in Gen. George Patton School District 133. And, with the district receiving $10,144 per pupil, about 15 percent above the statewide mark of $8,786 per pupil, it would seem there’s more than enough money for the district to accomplish its academic goals.

But, with 97 percent of Patton district students living in poor homes, officials complain that, once tutoring and remedial programs, as well as preschool, special education, transportation and free lunch, are paid for, the district has little left for much else.

Like many school districts serving students from poor homes, the Patton district spends money for services and programs that school districts serving students from middle-class and upper-middle-class homes typically don’t, The Chicago Reporter has found. This allows districts with students from wealthier families to more often provide them with well-educated teachers, access to technology and programming in the fine arts, sports and extracurricular activities.

For instance, Western Springs School District 101—where a miniscule 0.1 percent of the students are low-income—provides regular art, music and gym classes even though the west suburban district spends just $7,424 per pupil, $2,720 less per pupil than Patton.

And, in districts with sky-high property values, like Northbrook School District 27, where per-pupil funding is $15,308 and just 0.6 percent of the students are low-income, fourth-graders have access to wireless laptop computers.

Meanwhile, Tasha Nelson, a parent and staff member at Patton, said students in some classes can’t take textbooks home because there aren’t enough for each student. “I worry about whether my children will be prepared for high school.”

A cadre of education advocates point to Illinois’ wide variation in school district per-pupil funding amounts—from $4,437.74 to $23,798.92—as evidence that the state’s school funding formula creates inequalities. But these per pupil amounts only tell part of the story.

The per-pupil amounts take into account a school district’s operating budget divided by its average daily attendance. Take out all the mandated expenses and the extra costs that come with dealing with students in poverty, and the amount poor districts have to spend on the regular day-to-day education of students shrinks considerably.

The spending demands and choices of school districts can affect the quality of education and widen the funding inequities, the Reporter found after visiting six Chicago-area schools and analyzing their budgets. The Reporter also analyzed aggregate financial data for more than 860 school districts across the state.

When school officials put together a budget, many factors come into play.

Rural school districts don’t have to pay their teachers as much as those near the city because of a lower cost of living. Some suburban districts are spending more on bilingual education to better serve growing immigrant populations. And others, like Community Unit School District 300, which spans 15 towns near west suburban Elgin, are seeing cornfields transformed into subdivisions and have to spend money to keep up with a yearly influx of new students.

But the biggest factor appears to be income, the Reporter found. School districts serving mostly poor children typically have higher costs for administration and support services that might address students’ attendance, emotional and academic issues.

School districts with well-to-do students, who don’t have many outside-the-classroom costs, spend more on things like enhancing their curriculum, paying and training their teachers, and offering fine arts.

The Education Trust, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, did a study that suggested schools with low-income children tend to spend less on teacher salaries than districts with mostly middle- and upper-middle-class children. Ross Wiener, policy director for The Education Trust, said this results in poor schools having less qualified teachers, and that might explain the heightened need for remedial programs.

Either way, he said it is unfair that some school districts have to choose between remedial programs and things like fine arts programs. “Education should not be a zero-sum game,” Wiener said. “The answer is not to say that the rich schools shouldn’t have what they have. The answer is that everyone should have the same as what they have. It should not be an either-or situation.”

In addition, because of a marked difference in where they get their revenue, school districts serving many poor children don’t have as many choices about how to spend their money as those that aren’t.

The Reporter’s analysis shows that, for districts with more than two-thirds poor children, the average share coming from the federal and state governments was 68 percent, and the average share coming from local sources, including local property taxes, was 32 percent. For districts with less than 10 percent low-income students, the average share of funding from Washington, D.C., and Springfield, Ill., was 22 percent, and the average share from local sources was 78 percent. State and federal grants come with more strings and red tape than local revenue, say school officials.

In Riverdale, old suburban homes and town houses sit in the shadow of abandoned warehouses and factories. As businesses closed, residents lost jobs, home values declined and local property tax revenue plummeted. Thirty-eight percent of the district’s incoming cash is from property taxes, and the rest is provided by the federal and state governments. “It is all grants,”

Colbert said with a sigh. Colbert said the district would be in severe trouble without the grants. But getting the government money has its difficulties. For one, it makes the district vulnerable to the whims of politicians and the financial outlook of the state and federal governments. For example, in 2003, when Gov. Rod Blagojevich eliminated state funding for gifted education in order to put more money into regular education, several school districts had to shut down their gifted programs.

Also, many of the state and federal grants are tied to specific programs and initiatives, taking away a lot of the choices and flexibility of district officials.

The district gets about $250,000 from the state for a preschool serving 80 children. Patton District Superintendent Frankie Sutherland, who also serves as the principal at Patton, said a preschool program was necessary since many children would come to kindergarten without any formal education and, therefore, start out behind.

Class sizes at Patton are small, at about 18 children. But the district’s average teacher salary is $40,000 a year, well below the statewide average of $55,000. In addition, 24 percent of the district’s classes are taught by teachers deemed “not highly qualified” by the federal No Child Left Behind law. For instance, math teachers without a college major or minor in math are classified as “not highly qualified” in math. Statewide, less than 2 percent of classes are taught by such teachers.

Sutherland uses federal money to pay for two types of tutoring programs designed to bring students up to speed. At a cost of $140,000, she pays for an online tutoring program and one that works with students after school. She also gets money from the state for a remedial summer school program.

While they concentrate on academics, Sutherland and Colbert said they think it is important that the students are exposed to as much as possible. They do have an art teacher and have money for a music teacher, but no one has applied for the job. They have a boys’ basketball team, a girls’ volleyball team and after-school programs. But little else is consistent since the district has limited funding for more activities and must rely on volunteers to keep them going.

Colbert points to the boys who did the tumbling at the assembly earlier that day. “There’s no program for them. Just think if we had a tumbling team,” she said.

Nelson, who has twin kindergarteners, said she would also like to see a drama club or a chess team. But, so far, she hasn’t been able to get enough parents to make these programs happen. In fact, the school does not have any type of active parents group. “These kids are out here, so idle,” she said. “We’ve got to keep them into something. We’ve got to keep them wanting to learn.”

West suburban Western Springs is landlocked and bordered on one side by a forest preserve, said Western Springs School District 101 Superintendent Brian T. Barnhart. But that hasn’t shielded the town from the makeover it has experienced in the past decade, he said. “People buy the old homes for the land, knock them down and then rebuild $450,000 homes.”

This has created interesting looking blocks with older bungalows side-by-side with new brick abodes. Many driveways have basketball nets at different heights, presumably to correspond with children of varying ages. Also, many of the homes have yard signs encouraging support for the high school’s athletic teams.

The new homeowners have joined the town’s long-standing tradition of active, supportive parents sending well-prepared students to school, Barnhart said. The school district doesn’t offer preschool and only runs a half-day kindergarten program, he said. “In our situation, our children get a lot of stimulating experiences outside of school, so the extra time in kindergarten would not be that important.”

But the school district offers an enrichment program for students performing above grade level, Barnhart said. Elementary school students get a taste of music and art in twice-weekly classes, while the middle school has well-developed programs with ample space and supplies. Students also have gym or recess everyday.

And the district recently hired technology integration specialists for each of its three elementary schools and the junior high school. Barnhart said the specialists make sure that computers are being used as part of lessons in reading, math, social studies and science. To further this goal of incorporating technology, the district has nine sets of 30 laptops with wireless Internet connections that can be wheeled into classrooms at any time.

The district also has about $200,000 for stipends to teachers who stay after school to coordinate clubs and sports teams. Barnhart rattles off a long list of offerings from drama to basketball. “The research is overwhelming that well-rounded kids do better,” he said.

In addition, the district provides a reading specialist in each building. And Barnhart said teachers often will come in early and leave late to offer extra help to struggling students. “Here, we get to be educators,” he said. “I think our teachers get up in the morning and look forward to coming to work because they get to do what they are trained to do.”

But the district does pay a considerable amount for special education. About 18 percent of the district’s $10.3 million budget is spent on its more than 270 special education students.

And the pressures of the tax caps have stifled the district’s ability to increase revenues. The caps limit the district’s amount of increased property tax revenue to cost of inflation or 5 percent, whichever is less. As a result, the district hasn’t reaped the full benefits of increased home prices, Barnhart said.

Just three years ago, the school district had to turn to voters to ask for a property tax increase. The referendum passed, but the property tax rate remains low at $2.58 per $100 of assessed value.

There are some things that the district has to do without. One of them is more space. At Field Park Elementary School, where the district office is located, the orchestra practices in the foyer. “I think we provide a strong academic program,” he said. “But it is –¦ a no-frills school district.”

School districts rich in property values have large unburdened coffers, giving them the ability to offer students a state-of the-art education.

With a budget of almost $20 million, Northbrook School District 27 has about $15,300 for each of its 1,310 students. The tax rate there is low, and Superintendent David Kroeze said the district has never had to ask voters for a tax increase through a referendum. Yet the district’s flush with cash because home values are high. In fact, the average price of homes currently on the market in Northbrook is more than $2 million, according to Northern Multiple Listing Service.

The school district has enough money to build reserves and pay for capital improvements with money saved over the years. Therefore, the district doesn’t have to ask voters to borrow money for renovations and additions, like most other districts.

Kroeze said the school district divides its funding into two categories: “essential” and “highly valued.” Northbrook has no need for a preschool or a full-day kindergarten program. Among the essential programs are average class sizes of about 16 children and teachers with a high degree of education and experience.

Kimberly Arakelian, the district’s assistant superintendent for finance and operations, said most of the district’s new hires come with master’s degrees and five years of experience. In fact, the teachers there average nearly 15 years of experience, more than 80 percent of them have master’s degrees, and their average salary is almost $68,000 a year—all above state norms.

Northbrook teachers also are privy to continual professional development. Kroeze said teachers are not only required to attend professional development during the school year, but they are also often paid in the summer to learn about a curriculum or a new way of teaching a subject. “One of our core values is that you need to give teachers time to learn, and it can’t just be squeezed into a school day,” he said.

The district also has administrative support for teachers that many other school districts don’t have. For example, the district has two curriculum coordinators—one specializing in math and science, and the other specializing in reading and language arts—who make sure that lessons are rigorous and coherent. In addition to a social worker in each building, there also are two behavior intervention specialists who can work with students with behavior problems.

Among the other essential programs are daily physical education classes. The students also have art and music twice a week.

In addition, there’s daily interaction with technology. Computer labs are in every building. In all, the district has 700 computers, including wireless laptops, for use by its 1,295 students. A seven-person technology department not only keeps the hardware running but makes sure computers are worked into the curriculum at every level.

The district also offers a sophisticated program for students identified as gifted. From kindergarten through third grade, students meet with a special teacher several times a week. After fourth grade, gifted students meet daily in a special class for as long as three periods a day.

Even if a student is not labeled gifted, every student has opportunities for enrichment at a full array of after-school clubs, such as broadcast club, chess club and competitive sports, and a summer school program. The Northbrook district, however, doesn’t pay for the summer school program, charging tuition for it instead.

Kroeze said he knows his students are privileged and that he sees the need for more equality between school districts in Illinois. But he argues against taking away any money from his district or others like it and distributing those funds among poorer school districts.

What people must understand, Kroeze said, is that parents in Northbrook expect a lot of their schools and they are preparing their children to go on to the best colleges and universities. “We wish others were as fortunate as we are,” he said. “But we are not going to apologize. Our feeling is that it would not be right to rob Peter to save Paul. Taking away money from us will restrict our ability to offer the highly valued programs and for the future our parents see for their children—this is what they demand.”

But Wiener from The Education Trust said that other states, such as New Jersey, have made significant progress in making the system more equitable. Recently released Education Trust research shows that Illinois has one of the most profound gaps between rich and poor school districts. “We point out that Illinois has made very little effort to change it, and there doesn’t seem to be the political will to do anything,” he said.

The most excitement around the idea of changing the Illinois school funding formula in recent years has been sparked by a coalition of advocacy groups called A+ Illinois. But the group’s campaign manager, Bindu Batchu, said that the idea of equalizing funding between rich and poor districts is too politically controversial. Right now, advocates are concentrating on trying to get the state to provide an adequate amount of money for each student and to lessen the reliance on property taxes to fund education. “Adequacy, not equity,” she said. “If we try for equity, there’s a sense that affluent districts will feel threatened. Our premise is that, if you provide enough for school districts, then they won’t feel the pressure of struggling to pay for art or music.”

“It should not be that what is considered standard in some districts is a luxury in others,” Batchu said.

Headshot of Sarah Karp

Sarah Karp

is an associate editor for our sister publication, Catalyst Chicago.