In November, before I turned out the lights in our high school library in Englewood, I opened an email from the CPS CEO Forrest Claypool. Mr. Claypool wrote that our students across the district had garnered amazing results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). He thanked CPS teachers saying, “This news is a definite indication that we are on the right track academically, and that the hard work that each of you are doing every day is having a tremendous impact on our students’ achievement.”
As I read the email, I was struck by the sheer irony of it. The NAEP results show that CPS students have improved in reading and math scores so much that they are nearly on par with their peers nationally. At a time when we should be doing everything in our power to maintain these impressive gains, leaders in Chicago are threatening teacher compensation cuts and mass layoffs, and decision-makers in Springfield are withholding vital funds that can cause those gains to disappear.
During my 12-year career at CPS, I’ve worked in two neighborhood high schools, one school in Roseland and the other in Englewood. I’ve taught students harmed by gun violence and some who had become immune to it. I’ve taught students who come to school hungry and students who have struggled to read texts three or four grade levels below them. I’m not alone in this; many CPS teachers share my experiences.
This is not to say that teachers in wealthier districts don’t have students with issues that can take away from their learning environments. But teachers and students in wealthier districts have more funding to deal with such issues than CPS teachers and students do. Wealthier districts in our state also don’t have to cram students into classrooms because of teacher layoffs. I believe all of our students and teachers deserve an equal playing field. Yet CPS students and teachers are being consistently punished because of our over-reliance on the usage of property taxes to fund our schools.
For the last four years, I’ve worked at a selective enrollment school that the U.S. World News and World Report ranks as No. 14 out of over 600 Illinois high schools. Despite having a 60 percent low-income level, our school ranks as high as many wealthy districts. Yet, our school receives less funding than schools in wealthier districts because of our state’s method of education funding.
According to the Education Trust, Illinois has the highest gap in the nation when it comes to the funding of high-income and low-income districts. Eighty-six percent of CPS students, or nearly 340,000 kids, receive free or reduced lunch. The Illinois Report Card shows that local, federal, and state funds allot for $15,120 per CPS pupil for operational spending.
Compare this to Winnetka, where the low-income rate is less than 1 percent and the per-pupil funding is $19,774, which amounts to a difference of close to $5,000 per student — $1,200 more per CPS student would fill the budget hole for operating costs of this school year. This is not a big ask of our city, state, and nation considering students in wealthier zip codes have this amount.
I often hear policy makers say that, when it comes to our schools, they operate with a business model in mind. Success in business generally creates an impetus for growth. If this is the mindset of decision-makers, why scale back on education amidst success?
Locally, although the Chicago School Board has returned to the bargaining table with the Chicago Teachers’ Union, the proposed pay cut via an elimination of the pension pick-up is in direct opposition to Mr. Claypool’s praise of the successes of our students and teachers. Instead, it is forcing strong teachers and teacher candidates to look to other districts and other states for jobs.
At the state level, we need to fight for new ways to fund our schools. According to the Education Trust report, 31 other states fund their highest-poverty districts better than their lowest-poverty districts. In Ohio, for instance, the highest-poverty districts receive 22 percent more in state and local funds than the lowest poverty districts. In comparison, we fund our highest-poverty districts close to 20 percent less.
Mr. Claypool is asking the state to allot 20 percent of its education funding to CPS, as our students make up 20 percent of all students in Illinois. This increase is a good start, and it would drastically reduce the deficit, but it is still missing the point of our students’ economic needs. A district’s population and students’ socioeconomic status needs to be factored more into state funding calculations than they are currently.
If our local and state governments continue to make poor decisions about our children, the federal government needs to step in. When failing banks and car companies needed a helping hand during the recession, our federal government bailed them out. CPS is not a failing company. It is no longer a failing school district. But our state and district are in a financial crisis that feels just as big. We need action and funding, and we need it at all levels — locally, regionally, and federally. Our students and teachers can’t afford larger class sizes and fewer programs. If we want our students to continue to make big gains, we have to support them accordingly.
Gina Caneva is a teacher-librarian and Writing Center director at Lindblom Math and Science Academy. She is a National Board Certified Teacher and Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellowship alum.