Major discussions on the state of learning for Chicago’s school children have been focused on how teachers teach, how we measure what is learned, and the effectiveness and effect of that learning and testing. It’s raised a lot of controversy but hasn’t yet made a difference.

The conditions of life are a factor in learning. Safe and affordable housing, good health care, along with living-wage jobs are not available in many neighborhoods. Brown vs. Board of Education never did make the changes expected, racism is still alive and well, and equal education is still a goal.

The schools in Chicago, while in the process of serious rebuilding, must provide for a class size small enough for the kind of individualized attention children get in rich school districts, with enough counselors, nurses and education specialists; and deeply involved parents and community.

More than one-fifth of the public school students in Illinois attend Chicago’s public schools. African-American students make up 53.2 percent of that student body; Hispanics, 33.4 percent; other minorities, 3.4 percent. The accompanying student profile chart sets a framework for understanding student needs.

Chicago’s public schools cannot be measured on the same yardstick as other public schools in the state that have less severe poverty, student mobility and limited English proficiency. These factors are serious impediments to learning.

While Chicago has made progress in the last few years, we are far from having an equal playing field.

In New Trier Township, $13,528 is spent per child, yet the property tax rate is $1.93. In Chicago, we spend $7,541, and our tax rate is $4.20. Joliet spends even less, with $5,687 per child, and has a tax rate of $1.90. Chicago is not alone trying to play catch-up.

The heavy reliance in Illinois on the local property tax leaves us with an unfair, regressive local tax base to support our schools. It’s time to move to a fair state income tax, preferably graduated, that could make all schools supported equitably.

The difference in spending per pupil from community to community depends on that property tax base, divided by the number of children in a school district. While the state has made some allowances for poverty, disability and limited English proficiency, the range in Illinois goes from $4,225 per pupil to over $13,000 per pupil. Some 5 percent of Illinois’ public school population get the high end of support.

The amount spent in Illinois school districts has nothing to do with need, much less providing equal education. Because we rely so heavily on the property tax, families who live in a rich community-one with either substantial industry or a large shopping center or just expensive homes—can spend a lot of money on their schools, and they do.

Chicago spends some $7,541 per pupil for a student population that has the greatest need. This is how we raise our school money:

Other cities find more realistic sources of revenue. For these other big cities, state income tax is a better equalizer. A rich state like Illinois, eighth richest in per-capita personal income, can do better than a 3 percent income tax rate, and a flat rate at that.

According to the state department of revenue, in 1997 the combined adjusted gross income of Illinois taxpayers with incomes over $100,000-8 percent of all Illinois taxpayers—represented 47 percent of all reported income in Illinois. There were over 15,000 millionaires.

This disparity in income and the disparity in school funding will hardly prepare Illinois for a prosperous millennium. Is education really the priority we advertise?

A prescription

Tax Increment Financing has been growing as a source of encouragement to industrial and commercial development; the hope is it will generate more jobs and profits. Unfortunately, it freezes the property tax for all its public partners, like schools and parks, for 23 years, with any growth in property value and taxes going to the improvement needs of TIF development. Generations of children could be long gone before it will rebound to the schools.

When do our children get their golden parachutes? It’s time our income tax reflected both the needs and the wealth of our state. We should:

Limit tax breaks, credits, deductions and exemptions to those individuals with incomes no larger than $100,000.

Increase our income tax rate and, preferably, convert it to a graduated one to assure fair and adequate revenue.

Re-examine our corporate income tax to assure a fair share of revenue support.

Address the revenue loss from the new utility organizations and the telecommunications industry; i.e., consider a sales tax on the Internet.

Make sure the feds stay in the revenue stream.

Then, we’ll have a fair shot at truly educating all the state’s children.

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