An Inconvenient Truth: Education Funding in Black and White
BUDGET | May 30, 2017
An Inconvenient Truth: Education Funding in Black and White

Forrest Claypool argues for the end of racially discriminatory education funding in Illiniois at the City Club on May 30, 2017. Remarks as prepared.

In 2006, a documentary called “An Inconvenient Truth” was released, about the dangers of climate change. It was based on the work of former Vice President Al Gore.

The underlying data showed that – like the proverbial frog in a slowly heating pot that realizes too late it is being boiled to death – our planet is slowly heating. The documentary argues that failure to understand this inconvenient truth, and confront it for what it means, will lead to catastrophe.

Today, with apologies to Al Gore, I want to share another inconvenient truth – that the state of Illinois is engaged in overt racial discrimination against African-American and Latino school children in Chicago. And if it is not understood for what it is, and if not confronted for what it means, it too will prove have catastrophic – for CPS, for Chicago neighborhoods, for Chicago’s economy, and most importantly, for the futures of hundreds of thousands of children.

The facts are not in doubt:

  • We have nearly 20 percent of the students in the state.
  • We receive only 15 percent of state education funds.
  • Our children our 90 percent of color.
  • The rest of the state is predominantly white.
  • The difference between our enrollment and what the State gives CPS is $500 million each year, and rapidly growing–the difference between a school system under siege and one that can offer fiscal stability and effective classroom resources.

There is no way to sugarcoat this.

As noted by lawyers representing CPS and five parent plaintiffs in the ongoing civil rights lawsuit against Gov. Bruce Rauner and the State: “Although the State has not installed signs on schoolhouse doors that say ‘Whites Only’ and ‘Colored,’ the State has used its checkbook to accomplish exactly that.”

This institutionalized discrimination is taking place in the home state of Presidents Lincoln and Obama, a state that prides itself on progressive political views.

No one person, no one party, no evil set of characters devised this system. It has evolved through accidents of history and changing demographics, from state fiscal pressures and weak political wills. But hurtful recent actions by the governor have exacerbated the underlying injustice.

One reason there isn’t broader recognition of this blatant unfairness is the way the story has been covered.

We live in an instant media age. And in this era of shrinking news budgets and increasing demand for content, the appetite for conflict is often greater than the commitment to dig deeply into the substance of these issues. Coverage too often becomes a catalogue of “he said, she said” claims and insults, rather than a thoughtful exploration of where the truth actually lies.

But the real story is evident from the State’s own public data and a little third grade math: When all sources of education funding are accounted for – general state aid, block grants, pension subsidies – everything – the State provided a CPS child with 74 cents for every dollar it spent on a child in the predominantly white remainder of Illinois in 2016. Perhaps because it is so simple to verify, the State did not contest these facts in Court.

Within four to five years, this number will be 65 cents on the dollar, and so on and so on, the gap between white Illinois and black and brown Chicago growing exponentially larger, making the great state of Illinois more akin to Jim Crow Mississippi than a modern Land of Lincoln.

And, by the way, our request for equal funding is not asking for a “bailout.” It’s not a bailout to receive simply what all other school districts receive.

Gov. Rauner and his spokesmen aggressively spread the lie that CPS receives more than other districts, calling it special treatment, as well as other lies with thinly veiled racial overtones – like calling Chicago schools “crumbling prisons.” Last election, they spent hundreds of thousands of dollars putting a dilapidated, frightening looking school in TV ads in state legislative races and screaming about a Chicago “bailout.” For the record, that wasn’t even a Chicago school.

Obscuring the truth even further are the strategic missives from our local teacher union leadership, who cast blame on the district and absolve the state of responsibility for discriminatory funding, saying, in their words, that it’s “unfair” and “not right” to blame Springfield.

Any individual or organization that purports to speak for teachers, children or social justice should be leading the chorus against this outrage. It’s disappointing, even bewildering, to me that the CTU leadership chooses to look the other way. They should be the first to acknowledge that this slighting of our children and teachers is fundamentally wrong. CTU should be locking arms with us in Springfield, not simply demanding that Chicago taxpayers sacrifice even more, to make up for the State’s destructive dereliction.

The State has failed to fund education properly for decades. Illinois is last in the nation in the percentage of funding it provides local schools, about 26 percent. It is last in the nation in reflecting the higher cost of educating children living in poverty. That jacks up property taxes and ensures that districts without valuable tax bases will not be able to provide adequate educations.

That’s why I joined dozens of downstate superintendents in the old state capitol of Vandalia last year, where Lincoln once served, and in Springfield last week, to protest the regressive state funding formula.

CPS students, like those in Decatur and Peoria and Aurora and Taylorville, have suffered under the failures of the state’s funding formula.

But Chicago students are hit with a double whammy – not just a regressive funding formula but a separate set of state rules that have brought the district to the brink of insolvency.

It is a relatively new phenomenon – just seven years in the making, the result of skyrocketing teacher pension obligations that by law only CPS has to make, with the State picking up the tab for every other school district.

Until seven years ago, the State created rough equilibrium, either by fully funding both State pension systems or by granting temporary relief to Chicago. But then it stopped doing both.

It has funded downstate and suburban teacher pensions 100 percent, while essentially zeroing out state funding for Chicago.

The General Assembly finally recognized this unequal treatment last year and took a small step toward funding equality, providing CPS with $215 million in pension subsidies. This did not make CPS whole, but it was a step in the right direction. However, Gov. Rauner vetoed even this small concession to fairness.

Regardless of his motivations, the fact is that Gov. Rauner continues to fully fund white districts, providing their pension subsidies and general state aid on time, while vetoing pension funding for black and brown CPS and delaying our state block grants.

The math is absolutely unsustainable. No amount of budget cuts, no amount of management efficiencies, no amount of tax hikes can make up the difference for long. Like the iconic Pac Man arcade creature, the state’s pension mandate will rapidly eat up every dollar in its path, in all likelihood costing the district hundreds of millions more in the next few years alone.

This racially discriminatory state funding is a cancer upon CPS. In the past two years, our cuts, management reforms, and enhanced revenues have been mere radiation treatments, slowing down and postponing the cancer’s advance. But no homegrown remedies will ultimately stop its deadly reach. Only the removal of the cancer–by either Springfield or by the courts– will cure the patient.

Our predecessors tried to keep up with the hundreds of millions in new state-mandated obligations by borrowing, draining down cash reserves and then borrowing from banks until they could borrow no more. This despite raising property taxes to the legal limit each year.

But borrowing only puts our taxpayers on the hook while letting Springfield off the hook.

But, for all practical purposes, borrowing as a means of coping is over. Despite all our efforts to minimize the pain in classrooms, budget cuts are creeping ever closer. As always, it’s the kids who lose out – and in our case – it’s low-income children, Black and Hispanic children- whose only path out of poverty is an education.

I’ve been in government and politics a long time. I’ve worked with all kinds of people – unions, business leaders, Republicans, Democrats, politicians and non-profit advocates.

My record is clear. I’ve privatized some services where it made sense and de-privatized others. I’ve cut spending where it made sense and and I’ve increased spending where it made sense. I’ve cut taxes and I have raised taxes. I’ve worked with unions and never triggered a strike, or even needed a contract arbitration to close a deal–something, by the way, that hadn’t been done in a generation at the CTA.

In every job I have had – at the Park District, CTA, City Hall and County – my only goal has been to boost the quality of service we provide, at a fair cost to taxpayers.

Less than two years ago, Mayor Emanuel appointed Frank Clark and I to lead CPS, joined by new board members. Together, we’ve significantly reduced inefficiencies and administrative costs, even while continuing academic progress. Modern management practices and financial controls are now in place, reducing costs and capturing new revenues, and administrative positions have been reduced by 30 percent, to just three percent of the CPS workforce.

And until Gov. Rauner’s mid-year veto of $215 million in pension funding, we had a balanced budget – a budget that had erased a starting deficit of 1.1 billion dollars.

But the stress and disruption caused by the governor’s mid-year veto, combined with the district’s junk credit rating and weak cash position, has harmed our schools and caused teachers, parents and principals to question whether CPS can ever right its fiscal ship.

We can, and we are, but all our efforts will be in vain if the State is allowed to continue to discriminate on the basis of race in distributing education dollars. Whether our victory comes in the courts or in the political arena, it must come, if we are to protect what we most cherish – the quality of the futures of our children, and everything that means for the future of this great City.

This financial injustice is sad for many reasons but particularly because it comes at a time of remarkable academic progress for CPS kids.

Our graduation rate has steadily climbed from around 50 percent when mayoral control began to 73.5 today and we’re on track to approach the national average in another few years.

Under Mayor Emanuel, the dropout rate has fallen by half. The District has set record ACT scores. The rate of freshman on track to graduate is twenty percentage points higher than it was just five years ago.

Here’s another interesting thing. A report came out last month showing that – despite all of our financial problems – we have 1,400 arts teachers in the school system – which is up by several hundred in the last few years, the result of Mayor Emanuel’s 2012 Arts Education Plan.

This is what parents want – a well-rounded education with kids who are engaged – and eager to come to school.

And there’s more.

A Stanford professor named Sean Reardon looked at test scores across the entire country between 2009 and 2013.

It turns out that – despite a student population that is overwhelmingly low-income – we got the highest rate of improvement of any big city district in America except for Washington D.C. – and we’re about 5 times bigger than D.C.

I want to say that again: Chicago has been improving faster than any other city in America except D.C.

According to Professor Reardon, kids in Chicago get more than five years of learning growth in four years between 4th and 8th grade. And his results are not just based on the Illinois test. They’re also based on a national test.

This is a great story, right? How come we aren’t talking about this? How come we spend all of our time talking about Springfield and funding and politics?

These remarkable academic gains started under Mayor Daley and they accelerated under Mayor Emanuel.

When it comes to why Chicago is doing so well, there is a theory going around – which showed up in the New York Times – of all places – a few months ago.

The theory is that, over the last decade, Chicago has invested heavily in principal development and we have done a lot to empower principals – to reduce bureaucracy – and to give schools more autonomy in exchange for accountability.

That’s something to be proud of.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we all joined hands – teachers, principals, parents, unions and elected officials and celebrated this remarkable accomplishment? Certainly, the generous taxpayers and parents of Chicago deserve some good news.

Today, 42 percent of our graduates enroll in four-year colleges, just below the national average of 44 percent. They’ve earned 1.1 billion in scholarships, a new record.

Under Mayor Emanuel, the school day and school year were lengthened, and access was increased to full-day kindergarten and pre-school.

We led the nation in making computer science a core high school requirement and expanded international baccalaureate programs and STEM – which stands for science, technology, engineering and math.

I could go on listing accomplishments and stories of triumph and hope – of smart, dedicated teachers and inspired and engaged students.

But I’m still hung up on this inconvenient truth. I’m still troubled that a district that is overwhelmingly Black and Hispanic, is systematically underfunded by the state – uniquely underfunded by the State, even as that same state government fully funds white districts.

And I’m deeply troubled that so little attention, and so little moral outrage, has been directed at this injustice.

I worry about what this will mean, not in the distant future, but now – to all the remarkable academic progress, to the district’s ability to attract and retain top principals, top teachers, and the middle class families who help anchor so many neighborhoods; to the safety and economic vitality of the City; and to the students whose very futures will increasingly depend on equal funding.

Under Illinois law, the Governor and the legislature have another 35 hours to pass a budget. And another 35 hours to address massive inequities in education funding. They have failed two years in a row so I’m not holding my breath.

We’re grateful to our Chicago legislators for their support of CPS. And in the coming hours – and potentially weeks ahead – we need them to do even more. We need them to bring a sense of urgency to this fight, and ensure another school year does not pass without equal funding for Chicago’s school children.

This time of year, our principals should be recruiting top teaching talent. Instead they’re thinking about where they can cut their classrooms.

It’s disgraceful.

Year after year, our politicians fail to address the twin evils of education funding driven by class, and education funding driven by race.

The only place to find hope in this political fiasco is in our classrooms, where the real work takes place every day.

A few weeks ago, I visited Amundsen High School, led by the incomparable Anna Pavichevich, to celebrate the students receiving generous college scholarships from Dan Jorndt, the former CEO of Walgreens, and his wife Pat, Amundsen alumni.

Amundsen High School is a neighborhood school on the rise, attracting more and more local parents, and recently cracking Chicago Magazine’s top 15 list. It is an ethnic stew, including the children of immigrants. In the audience, the proud parents of these new college-bound Americans burst with pride, holding their cell phones high to record the moment.

The students themselves spoke movingly, the Filipino immigrant who for years rarely saw his parents, one advancing his educational training in another state while his mother worked sixty hours a week to support the family.

A Guatemalan child made his way here at 13, following the tragic death of his mother. He spoke little English, but his teachers and fellow students nurtured his skills until he became an honor student.

Another scholarship winner barely escaped corruption and poverty in Africa before coming to America and blossoming as an honor roll student and captain of the basketball team. In Africa, her family could not pay her school fees consistently, so she often had to drop out in the middle of the year. With her college education at the University of Illinois, she has vowed to dedicate herself to ensuring other impoverished children are not denied an education.

These are inspiring stories, tributes to the American ideal that, armed with a quality education, you can rise above adversity and accomplish anything.

That is a dream that should be available to all children, regardless of where they live, what their parents earn, or the color of their skin.

It’s a dream worth fighting for. To do anything else would be surrendering to the most inconvenient truth of all: our indifference in the face of injustice.

Thank you.