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In Chicago Schools, $11,000 Doesn’t Mean What It Means In The Suburbs

This story is part of the NPR reporting project “School Money,” a nationwide collaboration among NPR’s Ed Team and 20 member station reporters exploring how states pay for their public schools and why many are failing to meet the needs of their most vulnerable students. WBEZ’s Becky Vevea visited several districts to sort out how Illinois pays for its public schools.

The state of Illinois is allocating less per child to public schools than it did in 2008, meaning local schools are relying more heavily on property taxes or on borrowing. The result is huge gaps in school spending between wealthy and poor areas. 

But even districts with roughly the same amount of money per student can have wildly different realities.

State Representative Robert Martwick (D-Chicago) has a front row seat to how that happens. 

His district includes the Northwest Side of Chicago, and the nearby suburban communities of Harwood Heights, Norridge, Elmwood Park and River Grove. 

“Even though it’s city and suburbs, they’re indistinguishable in terms of neighborhoods,” Martwick says. “It’s the exact same housing stock when you cross the border. In fact, most people, they don’t even know they’re passing through Norridge and Harwood Heights unless they look at the stop signs.”

Like night and day

But when it comes to the public schools, Martwick says, it’s like night and day. 

“(In CPS), they have 34 children per classroom,” he says. “Cross the border into Harwood Heights. It is an older building, but all new windows, a new roof. They have 20 kids per classroom.”

Martwick says at Hitch Elementary – a CPS school – students “rotate their use of the Chromebooks so that they can find a way so that every child can touch it at some point.”

“Move over to Harwood Heights, I walk through their library, which is just spectacular at Union Ridge school, and I find a group of kids all working on brand new Apple MacBook Pros,” he says. 

These two school districts, according to 2013 numbers adjusted for regional cost differences by Education Week, have virtually the same amount to spend per child.

The suburban district (technically, Union Ridge District 86) spends $11,287 and Chicago spends about $11,615. 

Underlying financial problems cut into student experience

So how is it that Martwick is seeing such different experiences when he looks at the suburban schools? 

“The difference is that those school districts are not dealing with massive financial problems and a huge unfunded pension liability and they’re not required to take money from their operation to pay back this mound of bills,” says Martwick. 

In other words, in Chicago, that $11,615 is not what gets spent on each of its students.

There are two big things coming off the top of that amount right away. 

First, is one thing current CPS Chief Forrest Claypool talks about all the time.

“The state of Illinois funds the benefits of teachers in every other part of the state,” Claypool says. “That means that Chicago, and Chicago alone, has to take resources away from its children to fund pensions. That’s why we’re the only high poverty district in the state that does not get at least equality.”

It’s been that way since the turn of the century. Chicago had one of the very first teacher pension systems; later, the state created one, but the two never merged.

What this means is that Chicago has to pay for its own teacher retirement benefits out of that $11,615 dollars. About $2,000 dollars per child every year --that’s what gets siphoned off the top. That’s not the case in Harwood Heights or any other district in the state.

To be fair, the state’s teacher retirement system, known as TRS, is also underfunded and payments are going up, which eats into the overall money approved for education. This means all districts in the state are seeing reduced per-student allocations and delayed payments.

Then, there’s Chicago’s borrowing problem. CPS frankly spent lots of money on things it couldn’t afford and is now borrowing to keep its doors open. The district is in debt to the tune of about $6 billion and counting. According to a Chicago Tribune investigation, Chicago is not alone. Hundreds of Illinois districts are in debt. Still, Chicago’s problem is probably the biggest.

“We did really fiscally irresponsible things … and now the bills are due,” Martwick says.

Today, about $1,500 per kid goes straight to paying back the city school system’s mounting debt. That leaves only about $8,000 left to spend on education.

There are a number of other things that chip away at that $8,000 per student in Chicago: legal fees, layers of bureaucracy, and maintaining empty buildings. The final amount given to CPS principals to create their budgets is around $5,000 per student. District spokeswoman Emily Bittner says WBEZ’s cost-adjusted numbers are not what they are working with, but she notes some of the money used up centrally does go toward things that impact schools, like busing, security, and janitors

But Bittner and other district officials argue that because CPS serves 87 percent low-income children and 17 percent English language learners, they ought to get more support. A bill sponsored by Senate Democrats introduced earlier this month would do just that -- allocate more money to districts serving the highest need students. 

Martwick says the myriad problems may make a solution feel insurmountable, but he insists it’s no more complicated than an individual household budget. 

“If you just got out of college, and you got a couple of your first credit cards, and you ran them up to the max because you were having fun... You would realize, ‘Holy moly! I can’t pay my rent payment or my phone payment!’” he says. “You would do whatever it takes. Both cutting and maybe getting a second job, raising revenue, and the first thing you would do is pay off those credit cards.” 

Martwick says it doesn’t happen overnight. It’ll take time and it won’t be fun. But if CPS can get new revenue and make smart cuts, eventually, the district will be able to spend money on what it wants and needs. Like, perhaps, new computers and smaller class sizes. 

NOTE: The numbers used in this article were calculated by Education Week to adjust for regional cost differences. This was part of the NPR reporting project “School Money,” a nationwide collaboration among NPR’s Ed Team and 20 member station reporters, including WBEZ, exploring how states pay for their public schools. The numbers used by individual districts and the Illinois State Board of Education may vary.

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